Patriots advance on large backs of big men

Luke Hancock watches the game from the bench (John Powell)

Sophomore guard Luke Hancock’s 18-point performance led the No. 8 George Mason Patriots (27-6) to a second-round victory over the No. 9 Villanova Wildcats, 57-61, on a battle of the boards. 

Both teams started out with energy, but Mason had a bit too much of it. For the second shot of the game, Ryan Pearson airballed a shot to the right of the rim from beyond the arc. Villanova took control of the scoring with a shot from the line by senior forward Antonio Pena, the starting forward. The Patriots responded with a 3-point shot from Cam Long, beginning a seven-minute shootout. 

Four lead changes and three ties later, the war on the boards and on the floor fell in favor of Villanova.

Villanova’s two Coreys, both senior guards, took over. Fisher was the first to get in on the action. He went 5-of-10 for 13 first-half points, keeping the game close for the first 10 minutes. He exploded after that alongside Stokes, who tallied 11 points in 18 first-half minutes. 

“First half we came out a little sluggish, a little jitterish, and I guess just the excitement is what took over,” Long said.

George Mason’s poorer shooting numbers forced them to play catch-up for the second part of the half. While senior guard Cam Long could only put up five points and sophomore guard Luke Hancock added six, senior guard Isaiah Tate gave a spark. He led the Patriots’ bench with an 11-1 first-have advantage over the Villanova backups.

The only player apart from Long to play in the NCAA Tournament, a Denver, Colo. event in his sophomore year, Tate led the charge with seven first-half points to compensate for a scoreless afternoon from junior guard Andre Cornelius.  

Cornelius brought the Patriots’ shooting percentage to 36.0 percent from the floor and 22.2 percent from behind the arc. The Wildcats made six 3-pointers for a 42.9 percent. It was the same percentage mark for their 12-of-18 shooting from the floor. While Corey Fisher made five shots from the floor, no Patriot made more than two. 

The Patriots went into halftime with a 29-35 deficit, and could not get going as the second half opened up. Mason went scoreless for more than three minutes to open the half until Cornelius fed the ball to junior forward Mike Morrison to put down a dunk, the first of Morrison’s night.

He took charge during the second half. The Wildcats outrebounded the Patriots 20-14 in the first half, but Morrison responded with an answer of his own. As the rebound and foul numbers of his fellow big man, junior forward Ryan Pearson, started to stack up, he was eventually forced out of the game due to foul trouble. 

“We both was aggressive (sic.) on the boards, George Mason and us,” said Villanova’s Corey Fisher. “We played good defense … And they made some plays down the stretch.”

But the bench responded again, this time with sophomore forward Johnny Williams. He scored four points in the first half with limited play, but in Pearson’s absence, he made two clutch shots down the stretch to bring his total to eight points. 

“We just kept fighting,” Morrison said. “First Johnny, he had a great game. He had a lot of finishes. He had a lot of energy, played great defense. And Ryan’s always going to be a scorer, even when he’s struggling. And we kept battling.”

The bigs led the team for the second half to match up against Villanova’s sheer size and weight. The Patriots scored 32 points in the paint to the Wildcats’ 12 points. The big men led Mason to a 36-35 rebounding advantage. Willams aided Tate to boost the bench’s numbers to an 18-3 point advantage. 

“A lot of times in my mind, and this has nothing to do with Andre Cornelius or Ryan Pearson,” Mason Head Coach Jim Larranaga said, “two starters who didn’t play nearly as much in the second half as they normally do, if I find a combination of players that are working well together, I’m going to stick with them.”

The team as a whole brought their shooting numbers up to 44.4 percent from that relatively dismal 36.0 percent in the first half. At the same time, they held Villanova’s shooting to 29.2 percent from 42.9 in the first half. 

Pearson came back in for an ugly jumper under the basket to tie the game before Morrison led back with a dunk. But Tate gave the team a scare when he fouled Corey Fisher from 3-point land, only to have Fisher make all his threes.

Luke Hancock responded by making a play at the baseline, shaking off the Wildcats’ Corey Stokes before pausing and draining a 3-pointer, taking a 2 point lead.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he made it,” said Jay Wright, the Wildcats’ head coach. “He shoots over 40 percent from 3. So we knew they were going to put it in his hands. We had Stokes on him. He’s our best defender and the kid made a great play.”

As the game wound down, Morrison pulled out the dagger. Up by two points with half of a second to go, he electrified the stadium by punishing the rim for his third dunk of the night to complete a double-double performance, 11 rebounds and 10 points.

“We kind of ended up being the last team standing,” Larranaga said. “How proud I am of these guys sitting next to me and those guys in the locker room, to be able to overcome, you know, what I would consider a very rough game for us.”

The forwards, including Hancock, a type of crossover player, had their biggest impact as a whole this season, and the Patriots rode their coattails into the third round.

“What is important is advancing,” Larranaga said. “And we survived. We’ve advanced, and now our focus is on enjoying this game today and then start getting ready for our opponent on Sunday, tomorrow.”

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