I am firmly convinced that there is no better way to spend a Saturday night than watching a good ol' Colonial Athletic Association rock fight--especially when undisputed possession of first place and long winning streaks on both sides are at stake. However, fans of the Association could not have anticipated even a month ago that Georgia State's early January visit to George Mason would meet such high-powered criteria. While the Patriots are a perennial contender, the Panthers had been picked eleventh in the preseason, and have disappointed for years. However, under new coach Ron Hunter, and with a senior-laden team, GSU has discovered a winning formula. Featuring two of the league's best defenses, the game promised to be a battle.
It was this spirit of anticipation that carried me to my customary place in the front row of the student section at the Patriot Center last Saturday night, decked from head to toe in green and gold. The student section can a bit thin with classes not yet in session, but my friends J., A., and G. were already there to help defend our home court.
The buildup to this game can be traced back to the firing of former Panthers head man Rod Barnes at the tail end of last season--right in between GSU's back-to-back losses to Mason, first in the final CAA regular season game, and then in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament barely a week later. In the second meeting, the Panthers had blown an 11-point lead, and then been blown out by a faster, quicker, more athletic Patriots squad.
Fast forward to a new season: in Fairfax, the offseason departure of Jim Larranaga and subsequent arrival of Paul Hewitt was coupled with expectations of continued success. However, if anything, the transition has gone more smoothly in Atlanta. The mismatch I witnessed first hand in Richmond last March is a relic of the past; GSU has closed the gap.
While Hewitt and his team spent November and December working through offseason defections and a first-semester suspension that reduced their backcourt to inexperienced underclassmen, Hunter took over a senior-laden group and orchestrated a 180-degree shift in attitude and culture, changing everything from paint in the locker room to music at practices to the very location of the home bench at GSU Sports Arena. So here they were, ten months later, on a torrid 11-game winning streak. Fresh off a stunning road victory over VCU and tied with Mason at 3-0 in CAA play, they had a chance to seize control of the Association race (while the Patriots entered looking to extend a streak of their own: a record-tying 17-game streak in regular season CAA games).
It took all of about five seconds after the opening tip for me to understand how and why Hunter has instilled a culture change at Georgia State. He is (if this is possible) a more energetic twin of Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, famous throughout the Colonial for his sideline antics (and not infrequent ejections). Hunter never stops moving, never stops encouraging his players, never stops talking, and never stops clapping. He's the Energizer Bunny in a suit and tie, and he's always in the referee's ear.
It's not just the head coach, either, the same streak seems to have spread through the entire staff, from Hunter right down to the team managers. According to the observations of my friend and fellow student A., one GSU assistant coach's sole responsibility appears to be the constant waving of a very large towel in order to fire up the team.
All this cheerleading may sound silly but it apparently works. The Panthers are a veteran bunch, and while they've always been long and agile, now they have the confidence to use that length and quickness to their advantage. The result is a team ranked in the top 30 in the country in defensive efficiency. But raw numbers weren't needed to make their abilities known: right from the opening tip, long arms snaked everywhere, disrupting passes, trapping, slapping, swatting, being a pest.
The game itself was every bit as advertised. Sophomore guard Vertrail Vaughns knocked down a three-pointer essentially from the Panther bench to open the scoring for the Patriots, but from then on, defense ruled. The teams found themselves tied at 13 apiece at the under-12 media timeout, and GSU held a slim 19-18 margin at the under-eight. Mason was able to put together a small run just before halftime, and led by three steals from senior guard Andre Cornelius, the Patriots took a 31-23 lead into the break.
The Panthers responded out of the locker room with renewed defensive intensity and quickly tied the game at 31 a side, while the Patriots were initially ice cold from the field, before a spark emerged. The story of the night for Mason, especially as the second half progressed, became senior forward Mike Morrison. A 6-foot-9, 237-pound dunk machine and defensive ace, Morrison has elevated his offensive game in recent weeks and would finish with 14 points, a career-high 15 rebounds, and four blocks. Ignited by a sequence in which he got two hard fought offensive rebounds and a stick-back layup, Morrison owned the paint on offense and defense for the next few minutes, collecting seven rebounds, and each time sticking the ball back up or feeding a teammate on the break.
Powered by this awakened monster, Mason jumped out to its second eight-point lead of the night at 42-34, and Ron Hunter was forced to call time out.
What did Georgia State do? Undeterred by Morrison's emphatic dunk moments earlier, or the deficit, or the rising crescendo from the crowd, or any sense of deja vu from last season, or even Rage Against the Machine shaking their bench, they just kept going and going and stormed back to a 47-45 lead with just five minutes to play, the crowd-quieting comeback largely led by senior guard James Fields. The remainder of the game was defined by long defensive and offensive stalls, and free throw shooting, with Mason coming out on top 61-58 despite an absolutely filthy put back dunk by Panthers forward Eric Buckner at the buzzer.
Remarkably, almost impossibly even, Mason's go-to scorer, senior forward Ryan Pearson, finished the night without a field goal (0-4), but his reputation as a double-digit scorer survived thanks to a ten-for-ten night at the line. (It's the beard. I mean, have you seen this thing?)
As a fan, I take a certain interest in free throws, one of the few areas of the game that fans can make any impact (by changing the environment of the arena). In the first half, with GSU shooting into the teeth of the Mason student section, our usual hand-waving, jumping, and screaming wasn't proving sufficiently disruptive. On a whim, with the shooters mere feet away, I resorted to waving my hands in a circular pattern, as well as trying to change my motions suddenly and erratically just as each Panther player looked comfortable or released his shot. The results of my hypnotic efforts were staggering, with the Panthers bricking their final five free throws of the first half, including a sequence where a lane violation gave Tony Kimbro a third attempt at scoring a free point, only still to come away empty. I can't say that I had anything to do with the misses, of course, but I'd like to think that I must have.
After the teams switched ends for the start of the second half, I received another sign that the charity stripe leaned towards the Green and Gold, when a randomly chosen student knocked down a free throw as part of a timeout contest. Sure enough, down the stretch, the Patriots hit on a somewhat uncharacteristic 11-of-12 free throw attempts, including six-for-six from Pearson. And all of that was barely enough. Thank you, charity stripe.
More surprising to me even than the Panthers' transformation, perhaps, is that despite their style of play, they really only used six players, with Jihad Ali playing all 40 minutes. That takes a lot of energy, and that energy comes from their coach. Welcome to the CAA, Ron Hunter. I can see you're going to make things entertaining around here. Keep Going!
at GEORGE MASON 61, GEORGIA STATE 58 01/07/2012
GEORGIA STATE 11-4 (3-1) -- T. Newsome 5-15 1-2 12; J. Ali 6-14 5-5 19; E. Buckner 5-9 1-2 11; J. Fields 4-10 1-3 10; J. Micheaux 0-2 3-4 3; D. White 3-13 0-0 7; T. Kimbro Jr. 3-4 0-3 6; J. Vincent 1-2 0-0 2; B. McGee 0-2 0-0 0; R. Richardson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-56 10-17 58. GEORGE MASON 12-4 (4-0) -- V. Vaughns 6-12 2-3 17; M. Morrison 7-10 0-1 14; R. Pearson 0-4 10-10 10; A. Cornelius 2-8 3-4 8; B. Allen 2-5 3-3 7; S. Wright 0-4 0-0 0; E. Copes 1-2 0-0 2; C. Edwards 1-3 0-0 3; V. Gray 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 19-51 18-21 61.
Three-point goals: GSU 4-10 (B. McGee 0-2; J. Ali 2-2; J. Fields 1-1; D. White 1-5), GMU 5-18 (A. Cornelius 1-5; V. Vaughns 3-8; S. Wright 0-2; B. Allen 0-2; C. Edwards 1-1); Rebounds: GSU 26 (J. Micheaux 7), GMU 36 (M. Morrison 15); Assists: GSU 11 (J. Fields 5), GMU 8 (B. Allen 3); Total Fouls -- GSU 22, GMU 19; Fouled Out: GSU-J. Micheaux; GMU-None.