- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

DURHAM, N.C. — George Mason coach Jim Larranaga sat in the interview room inside Cameron Indoor Stadium yesterday, tilted his glasses and peered at the stat sheet from the Patriots’ game at seventh-ranked Duke.

As was evident in the numbers, the Patriots never threatened to pull a monumental upset. The Blue Devils played an efficient and unspectacular game.

After Duke’s drama-less 69-53 victory, the coach who led George Mason to the Final Four last season gave a stark assessment of where his team is now.

“We are not scoring many points, and we can’t make any 3s,” said Larranaga, whose team made just four of 17 3-pointers. “That’s all because we have some guys that are not scoring that the opponent’s defense doesn’t even have to worry about.”

The Patriots (4-4) have struggled offensively all season, relying almost exclusively on power forward Will Thomas and guards Folarin Campbell and John Vaughan. That reality caught up with them yesterday afternoon before 9,314 and an ESPN audience as Vaughan, George Mason’s top outside threat, missed all six of his 3-pointers and finished with four points.

Thomas took only one shot in the first half, but bounced back to finish with 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting overall. Campbell missed nine of his 13 shots and finished with 13 points along with six assists.

“Right now we don’t have a starting lineup yet. We have three guys, and they need two guys to go along with them to help us,” said Larranaga, whose other starters Jesus Urbina and Jordan Carter combined for three points. “I have changed the starting lineup four times. That is not by accident.”

The only good news was the Patriots may have found a second big man to complement Thomas and prevent defenses from collapsing exclusively on him. Freshman Louis Birdsong, who did not play at all in the win over Radford earlier in the week, scored nine points in 23 minutes and made some nice interior passes to set up Thomas.

It was hardly enough to compete with Duke (9-1), which never trailed and took control when George Mason went 5:49 without scoring at the end of the first half. Blue Devils center Josh McRoberts (seven points, eight rebounds, eight assists) continually drew the defense and set up the open man.

Duke had 21 assists on its 25 field goals and made nine of 20 3-pointers. DeMarcus Nelson shined on the perimeter with a career-high 24 points, making three of four 3s. Jon Scheyer also had a hot hand with 18 points, including four 3-pointers.

“We had 21 assists and 11 turnovers and that was like heaven,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

The Blue Devils took charge late in the first half after George Mason got within three after trailing 20-9. The Patriots scored five straight to cut it to 24-21 on a 3-pointer by Campbell. Vaughan even had a shot to tie, but badly missed a 3 off the back rim.

David McClure scored on a backdoor layup off a feed by McRoberts to start a seven-point run. Greg Paulus followed that up with a 25-foot 3-pointer and McRoberts’ layup pushed the lead to double figures.

It was a wild start to the second half as both teams were hot. George Mason made its first eight shots but was hurt by four turnovers and Duke’s hot shooting. The Blue Devils made eight of their first 11 field goals, including three of three 3-pointers.

The Patriots only got within 10 once after intermission early in the second half when Vaughan’s baseline jumper made it 33-24. The Blue Devils countered with a 7-1 run with Nelson’s 3-pointer making it 40-25. George Mason scored seven straight to cut a 57-40 down to 10 on a Birdsong 12-footer with 6:39 left, but could not sustain the rally as Duke’s Gerald Henderson responded with a 3-pointer.

The Patriots not only could not shoot but also had trouble handling the ball with numerous sloppy turnovers as they got rattled getting into the offense.

“We’ve got a lot of youthful mistakes, and until our players raise their level of effort and intensity in terms of doing the simple things, they’re going to have a hard time running any offense,” said Larranaga, who runs specific practice drills to secure the ball. “We struggle to catch the ball. How are you going to find open men when you have a hard time just catching it? [Duke] is the team that probably took advantage of that more than any other.”

George Mason will take an 11-day break for exams before resuming its season Dec. 21 at Holy Cross. Colonial Athletic Association play starts the following week as the Patriots will try to grow enough to be a factor later this season.

“We are clearly a work-in-progress, but we are learning — slowly,” Larranaga said. “Quite frankly, our inexperience shows almost from the opening tip to the final buzzer. We have so many little things to work on to get good enough to compete at a national level again.”

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