The halfway juncture of George Mason’s conference schedule arrived with the Patriots playing a middle-of-the-road game.
They couldn’t shoot from the perimeter. They could defend. And they generated just enough transition opportunities to dispatch UNC Wilmington 67-61 on Monday before 4,147 at the Patriot Center.
This Mason team isn’t always the easiest on the eyes. Yet the Patriots still make the turn in CAA play in sole possession of first place, a game clear of Drexel, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth.
And that counts for quite a bit.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction, there’s no question about that,” coach Paul Hewitt said. “Defensively, we’re staying pretty solid. When we don’t turn it over, we’re moving it and getting good looks. We just didn’t make shots the second half of last game and both halves of this game.”
Two guys who did Monday were forward Ryan Pearson (20 points, 12 rebounds) and guard Bryon Allen (17 points), the only players to reach double figures for the Patriots (16-5, 8-1 CAA).
KK Simmons scored 18 points off the bench for the Seahawks (8-11, 4-5), who have dropped eight straight to Mason.
They had a chance to end that streak, leading for much of the first half and withstanding an extended Patriots’ rally —- a 27-8 run spanning the break —- to eventually close back within a point.
Then Mason repeated its recent formula. It got stops. It busted out into transition for Allen’s three-point play. It penetrated toward the end of the game after finally growing weary of shooting errant shots over UNCW’s zone. And it finally made some free throws.
And so the Patriots ended the night where they started, and sit about where most figured they would with nine conference games to go.
“We talked before the game about ‘Hey, we’re in first place by ourselves, and you’re going to get the best shot everybody’s got to offer, and you have to stand up and play with some confidence,’” Hewitt said. “Maybe I made them look down. You’re climbing up a mountain and all the sudden you get a little nervous.”
Mason’s players might argue against being nervous. There’s little debate the Patriots remain inconsistent, a team still searching for its peak with only 10 games to go in the regular season.
The Patriots’ weaknesses are obvious, though some progress was made Monday. Mason committed 13 turnovers, including just four in the second half. Its defensive rebounding, a middling 50/50 split two days earlier against Towson, improved to 68.2 percent against the Seahawks.
“We just have to keep working,” Pearson said. “For us, 8-1 is great, but we can’t get comfortable.”
It would be hard to feel that way anyway. Comfortable victories are a rare thing in Fairfax these days, even at home.
UNC Wilmington wasn’t fully dispatched until the final minute. Same goes with Towson. Five of the Patriots’ last six victories have come by 12 points or less.
The Patriots aren’t finished growing, even with the CAA schedule halfway done. Improvement continues to come for the league leaders, even if Mason doesn’t always play the part of a dominant conference heavyweight.
“If we’re blowing people out, I’ll be happy but I’ll be surprised at the effort level of other people,” Hewitt said. “It’s going to be this type of thing for the rest of the year where people are going to come at you. We feel like we’re better than everybody else in the league, and that’s the way we’re talking about trying to be a confident group like that.”
—- Patrick Stevens