The George Mason Patriots squandered another late-game advantage in an 87-81 loss to the No. 19 St. Louis Billikens on Saturday.
The Patriots, the newest member of the Atlantic 10 Conference in men's basketball, lost their eighth consecutive game and remained winless in conference play (0-7) this season. Just as the story has gone all season long, the Patriots led by seven on three separate occasions but were unable to fend off the Billikens late in the game.
Despite trailing at the half, the Patriots took the lead immediately out of the break and held the advantage for the entirety of the second half until the Billikens' Rob Loe tied the game at 68 with 44 seconds left. George Mason could not win the game in regulation, after two shot attempts rimmed out, and Saint Louis ran away with the victory in overtime.
After another heartbreaking loss for the Patriots, the following is a list of five keys Patriots fans can take away from their latest defeat.
Let's be clear: Competing with every team in the conference is different than beating every team in the conference.
With the exception of the VCU game in early January, wherein the Patriots were within a basket at halftime, George Mason has lost by no more than six points in every conference game this season. They have used impressive performances from senior guards Bryon Allen (15 points per game) and Sherrod Wright (13.7 points per game) to keep themselves within striking distance in every game, including their loss on Saturday.
Following that game, Patriots coach Paul Hewitt told the Associated Press (h/t The Washington Post), "Anytime you lose it’s disappointing. To come on the road and play a team the quality like Saint Louis is the way we did, I’m very proud of our players. We gave ourselves a chance."
Allen, who scored a career-high 30 points on Saturday, is a legitimate No. 1 scoring threat on a nightly basis. Since making the move to the off-guard toward the end of last season, he has excelled at attacking the rim and finding his teammates for easy buckets in the paint. Wright received George Mason's only preseason recognition, as he was picked as a second-team all-conference player, but he underperformed in a number of games this season.
As competitive as this team has been, however, its inconsistency is best illustrated by the fact that the Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in every offensive and defensive category. They rank 12th in points scored (68.7) and rebounding (34.3), and they claim the worst assist rate in the Atlantic 10 with just 10.2 dimes per contest. Defensively, the Patriots rank 12th in points against (71.5) and rebounds against (32.6) while surrendering the most assists (11.9) per game in the conference.
With a scoring margin of minus-2.8 points per game, the Patriots are statistically one possession away from a victory in nearly every game this season.
While the Patriots are 0-7 in the Atlantic 10, they could just as easily be 6-1, if not for a handful of bad bounces at the end of seemingly every conference game.
Aside from a 14-point loss at the hands of VCU in the first conference game of the season, the Patriots have lost by an average of 4.2 points per game, including two overtime losses (at Rhode Island, at No. 19 Saint Louis). They most infamously blew a five-point lead to No. 16 UMass with just 41 seconds remaining, as shown above, by committing three turnovers in the last 30 seconds.
Again on Saturday, George Mason was toppled by No. 19 Saint Louis despite leading for nearly the entire second half. After a late-game run by the Billikens knotted the contest at 68, the Patriots turned in a shaky, conservative final possession of regulation and were subsequently squashed in overtime.
Although the Patriots start two freshmen (Jenkins and Marquise Moore), it has been mistakes by upperclassmen Allen and Wright that have caused the most significant issues in crunch time. While the Patriots may have been able to afford similar mistakes in the Colonial Athletic Association, every possession counts in the A-10, which, according to the A-10 official Twitter account, Stan Van Gundy called "one of the top four or five leagues" in America.
The Patriots have leaned heavily on their perimeter shooting against some incredibly stout defenses in the Atlantic 10 this season.
As a welcomed change, George Mason cut its season average of 15 three-point attempts in half and attempted just eight low-percentage field goals in Saturday afternoon's loss to Saint Louis. While leading scorers Allen and Wright are efficient shooters, both players are at their best when they are attacking the basket. They have a knack for creating opportunities for their teammates and have the ability to finish in (or through) traffic.
Erik Copes, who joined the Patriots in 2011 as the program's highest-rated recruit, showed glimpses of his massive potential on Saturday. Copes tallied 10 points and nine rebounds in the loss, and he was crucial in helping the Patriots out-rebound the Billikens by a 39-30 margin. At 6'8" and 250 pounds, the Patriots have a dynamic defensive presence and a willing rebounder in the interior who could be the key to Mason's resurgence in the second half of this season.
Behind 56 points in the paint, George Mason pushed the 19th-rated team in the nation to the brink. With the adoption of a similar mindset moving forward, the Patriots may find themselves more successful against conference foes.
This one, perhaps, is a no-brainer.
Jalen Jenkins has earned three consecutive Rookie of the Week honors in the A-10 and is quickly becoming one of the best young big men in the conference. Over the last five conference games, Jenkins is averaging 13 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
His most impressive performance to date came in a home loss to St. Joseph’s on Jan. 11. Jenkins shot 8-of-10 from the floor for 20 points and seven rebounds. He picked up the first double-double of his career, posting 10 points and 12 rebounds in the team’s first conference loss to VCU on Jan. 9.
Jenkins put together another impressive outing on Saturday afternoon in the Patriots’ eighth consecutive loss, scoring eight points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Jenkins has become a quiet leader on the floor for the Patriots. Jenkins is energetic and plays an integral role in gaining extra possessions, and he leads the team in both offensive rebounding percentage (11.5 percent) and defensive rebounding percentage (24.9 percent).
If the 6'7" forward continues to progress, his presence in the interior could propel George Mason to the top of the conference over the next few seasons.
This may be a point of contention for George Mason fans, especially given the overwhelming success former Patriots coach Jim Larranaga is enjoying with the Miami Hurricanes, but Hewitt is here to stay.
Hewitt is certainly not blameless in his team's 7-14 overall record, but he has yet to lose his team. While some in-game decisions—namely his excessive use of timeouts—can certainly be called into question, Hewitt's pregame planning has been crucial in keeping his team within striking distance through 40 minutes.
Most importantly, he has not lost the confidence of his team.
His offensive game strategy and switch to the zone defense for much of Saturday's matchup with the Billikens was monumental in his team's ability to contain the conference's top team.
George Mason fans have been quick to call for Hewitt's dismissal from the team, but let's keep in mind that we are not talking about a coach with no proven track record. Hewitt led his former Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to the 2004 National Championship.
He knows what it takes to win.
Hewitt has made a career with his emphasis on player development and recruiting. He demands a high level of physical conditioning and intensity, and as more of his recruits begin to enroll, the future may once again be bright for the Patriots.