- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2009

There’s perhaps no point in the history of George Washington basketball when a victory over George Mason - the younger, less prestigious school five miles outside the Beltway - would have meant so much. It’s as much a reflection of the Colonials’ fall as it is the Patriots’ ability to remain in the wake of a historic March run in 2006.

But however they got to this point, the Colonials needed this game. They played like it from the beginning, and they got it.

Riding an aggressive transition attack that turned George Mason’s 35 percent shooting performance into numerous fast-break opportunities, the Colonials cruised to a 66-49 victory Wednesday night at Smith Center.

Senior forward Damian Hollis led the Colonials with 25 points, matching his career high and carrying the offense early in a game GW (5-1) made little effort to downplay.

“Maybe because we were playing [a] local team, we had an extreme amount of energy within the team,” Hollis said. “The energy was amazing.”

GW’s marketing department billed this year’s game, the first of a home-and-home series, as “The Battle of the Orange Line.” It might not have been a consequential enough matchup to merit a title earlier in the decade, but in the past four seasons, everything has changed.

George Mason became the darling of college basketball with its improbable Final Four run in 2006, and that appearance gave coach Jim Larranaga an audience with a higher caliber of recruits than the Fairfax school ever had. GW, in the meantime, slipped from a 2007 Atlantic 10 championship to missing the past two conference tournaments. In many senses, the Patriots surpassed the Colonials as the pre-eminent mid-major program in the D.C. area, sitting only behind Maryland and Georgetown in terms of status.

All of that gave the game a bigger backdrop than anything that had happened in Foggy Bottom in some time. The school started a Web site called “BeatGeorgeMason.com” for the game. A crowd of 4,125 packed the Smith Center - easily GW’s biggest turnout of the season - and at least 70 percent of the crowd was rooting for the Colonials, spurred by a raucous student section that was on its feet from the opening tip.

Early on, there was little doubt which team wanted the game more. George Mason entered without sophomore starters Andre Cornelius and Ryan Pearson, both of whom were suspended for violating team rules. Without Pearson’s inside scoring presence and Cornelius’ ball-handling skills, the Patriots’ offense struggled against GW’s pressure defense.

George Mason shot just 30 percent in the first half and was worse from inside the arc (5-for-19) than it was outside of it (3-for-8).

“I thought our defense was terrific,” GW coach Karl Hobbs said. “We created some steals. We kept the pressure on. We continued to attack the basket.”

While George Mason struggled to find a flow offensively, GW had no such troubles. The Colonials opened the game on a 14-5 run and reeled off another eight straight after George Mason pulled within two with 9:45 left in the first half. The Colonials’ lead was 35-27 at halftime, helped by 14 points from Hollis.

He drained an open 17-footer with 3:25 elapsed in the second half to stretch GW’s lead to 15. It came after a pair of easy layups, one set up by a Tony Taylor steal, and forced a George Mason timeout.

“When you take quick, bad shots, they always lead to good shots at the other end,” Larranaga said.

GW’s transition game kept rolling, pushing its lead to 22 with 13 minutes left. The Colonials collected 14 steals and benefited from 21 George Mason turnovers.

“Most of the shots that we took, we either took it without making a pass or we threw one pass. How many of you think that’s what I wanted?” Larranaga said. “I called a number of timeouts to instruct the team what we wanted or a reminder of what we practiced. We went back out and did the exact same thing - no passes, very little teamwork.”

The loss dropped Larranaga’s young team to 3-4, and it remains to be seen whether it’s the start of a reversal in the local power structure. But, for one night at least, GW could feel it was back.

“If we keep doing what we do - defense and energy and keep rebuilding the excitement - we should have good turnouts,” Hollis said.

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