NORFOLK, Va. | Nearly eight long years passed since George Mason entered the Constant Center and emerged with a victory.
Little wonder the Patriots —- especially veteran forwards Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson —- were downright giddy after a 63-54 victory over Old Dominion.
“We’ve got a bucket list,” Morrison said. “We have a list we have to do. It was win at Northeastern, which we didn’t do at first and we got that last year. We got at VCU [last season]. Now, we got ODU.”
Even with another game in 48 hours, the Patriots (11-4, 3-0 CAA) are certain to savor this for awhile. Seven straight losses on a perennial conference contender’s home court will do that.
This wasn’t a game that popped into the minds of Mason’s players Monday afternoon after wrapping up a victory over William & Mary. It was a priority for months, if not perhaps years.
“We said this year in the summertime when we were getting ready in our preseason workouts that we were going to get a win here at ODU and that’s what we came out here and did today,” Pearson said.
Mason’s maturation, at least among its top six players, was evident throughout. The Patriots seized the lead for good in a rollicking back-and-forth opening stretch that served as a prelude to the sort of sloppy, choppy games the Monarchs (7-8, 2-1) so often claim.
The Patriots know how that goes all too well, and Old Dominion’s path to victory was obvious throughout. The Monarchs, ever aggressive on the glass, collected 22 offensive rebounds but had only two second-chance points to show for it.
Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor found that development “befuddling.” For Mason, it was a validation of a stingy defense.
“After they got the rebound, our main objective after that was just not to let them score and not to let them get a lot of easy tip-in baskets that we saw on film,” Pearson said. “They’re relentless rebounders. What we tried to do was if we didn’t get the first rebound, we still tried to stick to our defensive principles and get the next stop.”
There were enough stops to maintain a lead, which grew as large as a dozen in the first half but shrunk to a basket at times after the break. Both teams sputtered for long stretches, with Vertrail Vaughns’ 3-pointer the only made field goal in the nearly four minutes between the under-8 and under-4 media timeouts.
Still, it was a crucial make. Mason struggled mightily to establish an outside game, and it bumped the lead to 57-48 and provided just enough of a boost to affirm the Patriots’ work at the other end.
“We were trying our tails off down there even though we were missing shots,” Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. “The sign of a bad team is when you don’t score and you allow it to impact your defensive energy. We didn’t do that.”
Old Dominion, meanwhile, couldn’t make shots from anywhere. Tip-ins wouldn’t drop. Outside tries rattled in and out. And a 12-for-25 outing at the foul line proved especially costly.
The Patriots weren’t paragons of efficiency down the stretch, scoring 29 points in 31 possessions in the second half. They simply didn’t yield much to the Monarchs, who slipped under .500 after New Year’s Day for the first time since 2008.
“It’s not like they went lights out in the second half,” Taylor said. “Their lights just weren’t quite as dim as ours.”
The Patriots cared little about the on-court offensive power and far more about the megawatt smiles Morrison, Pearson and guard Andre Cornelius wore afterward.
Mason is lodged in first place in the CAA with upstart Georgia State, which visits Fairfax on Saturday night with the outright conference lead at stake.
It’s important, of course, but moreso in the larger picture. The bucket list Morrison and his fellow seniors crafted is growing ever-shorter. Not much in the regular season can trump Thursday’s ecstasy, but Morrison knows precisely what would produce an even sweeter sensation.
“Now we have to win in the Coliseum against VCU,” Morrison said. “Not in Richmond [on the Rams’ homecourt], but in the Coliseum. They put us out three years in a row. That, and a [CAA] championship. That’s our only goal. That’s our focus.”
—- Patrick Stevens