Friday, January 12, 2007

George Mason 73, Towson 44

Sports fans often argue about which is worse: losing a close game or getting blown out. One week after letting a win get away in double overtime against Virginia Commonwealth, Towson went to the other extreme of losing and let George Mason put on a clinic last night. I don't have a strong rooting interest in the Tigers yet, so I can't claim to be heartbroken by the close loss, but I'll take that game over the one I saw last night every time.

The last time I saw the Patriots play, they were getting a final fitting for their Cinderella slippers against UConn in the NCAA Tournament. They beat the Huskies on national television in a sold-out Verizon Center to get to the Final Four. The media frenzy has cooled, to put it mildly, with GMU's 7-7 start this season. Still, there were signs of a reawakening in a 55-34 win over UNC-Wilmington on Monday. Towson, on the other hand, lost another double-OT at Georgia State before bouncing back with a win against Delaware.

In a promising atmosphere that included an ESPNU telecast and a good crowd thanks to a smart cross-promotion with the Ravens, everything seemed fine for the Tigers until the opening tip. Actually, that's a bit of a stretch; TU hung with the Patriots for the first 10 minutes of the half. Unlike the stymieing fullcourt pressure of VCU, Mason sat back in the halfcourt and swarmed Gary Neal whenever he got the ball. Early on, Neal was able to find open teammates, and the Tigers trailed 15-13 halfway through the first period; but when the teams went to their benches, GMU's defensive intensity picked up. Previously open passing lanes were suddenly closed as more than one Tiger found himself in the air with the ball and nowhere to go. The Patriots closed out the half on an 18-6 run.

After that, the only suspense was who would win the Ravens' halftime free-throw shooting fundraiser sponsored by a local radio station. The loudest cheers of the night came for Baltimore's first round pick, Haloti Ngata, who certainly has a WWE career available if the NFL doesn't work out, and kicker Matt Stover, who missed a free throw, but then nailed a three. Like basketball players, NFL guys don't look too big when they are together on the court, until the normal sized humans join them.

Towson tossed in a couple threes to open the second half but the Patriots answered quickly and then basically stepped on the Tigers' throat as they built the lead throughout the half. Neal finished with 18 points, seven below his average, and no other Tiger reached double figures. Mason got its typical 16 and 18 from Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell, respectively, the two remaining components from last year's iron five, but the real revelation for GMU coach Jim Larranaga was the play of point guard Jordan Carter, who had nine points, seven rebounds and eight assists, and was perfect from the floor.

Last week, I thought VCU looked very strong in the CAA race because they had such a balanced team effort. George Mason looks like it has the personnel to compete and showed it in spades last night. Towson badly needs to find a point guard to take some of the pressure off of Neal in the backcourt.

I'll be taking at least one more look at the Tigers this season when they host UNC-Wilmington next weekend. Now that I think about it, I have yet to see them win in four tries over the last few years. Could there be a FitzJinx?

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