March 30, 2012 7:40 am ET by Alan Kelly
Game #8-798: Delaware Blue Hens at George Mason PatriotsJanuary 18, 2012 7:00 pm
I arrived at the Patriot Center last month with preconceived ideas about what the feature event of the night would be: the debut of a fan-created (and NCAA-compliant) t-shirt honoring Patriots senior forward and team leader Ryan Pearson, or more exactly, honoring his famous beard (the shirt can be seen here, worn by Pearson himself).
Throughout the season, the #FearTheBeard movement paid homage to a highly unconventional player and one of the CAA's best power forwards, and lent its voice to his successful conference player of the year candidacy.
The t-shirts were an instant success, with hundreds ultimately sold. And Pearson clearly approved. "I like that shirt!" He yelled to me at one point early in the first half, as he inbounded the ball a few feet away from the student section.
So I thought that was going to be the highlight of the night. But I was wrong (you know what they say happens when you assume ... ). With about two minutes left in a game that had become a blowout in Mason's favor, coach Paul Hewitt inserted his three walk-on players, after urging from the student section and his players alike. One by one, they entered, beginning with sophomore Jacob Hoxie, a former Marine and former NAIA basketball player.
Reserve forward Jon Arledge picked off a Blue Hens pass, and gave it to freshman Corey Edwards, who drove into the lane. Then, with the Blue Hens' defense caught in transition, he alertly passed back to a wide open Hoxie at the top of the key. Hoxie didn't hesitate. It seemed like the shot was in the air for minutes, but finally ... Swish! The George Mason bench fairly exploded, with each player and coach vaulting out of their seat and yelling at least as loudly as the rest of the crowd. He was the second Mason walk-on, after Jordan Baird, to score a basket this season.
Seconds later, Hewitt called time out, allowing him to insert his other two walk-ons, former team manager and junior point guard Bryce Lewis, and junior Jordan Baird, whose musical exploits have been mentioned previously. Delaware head coach Monte Ross countered by emptying his bench as well, bringing in walk-on guards Samer Madarani, Brendan McNulty, Will Townsville, and forward Tommy Williams.
Lewis picked up a nice assist (the second of his season and career) on a drive and dish to rarely used sophomore Paris Bennett, and attempted the same play with Baird as the recipient but was whistled for a charge. On the Delaware side, Williams, a sophomore, converted one out of two free throws (for what I later discovered was his very first and so far, only, career point), and Townsville, a junior, made a shot for his second basket of the season.
Little about the game itself, before the closing minutes, was unusual. All anticipation focused on a duel between two of the conference's standout forwards in Pearson and Delaware's Jamelle Hagins, who both stood top-five in the conference in scoring and rebounding. The favored Patriots opened up a very quick 16-4 lead on the Blue Hens, in part fueled by three blocks against Hagins and a number of Mason steals. Delaware answered back and cut the lead to 4, but then Mason went on the run again, and the game was never really close again, with Mason leading 46-31 at the break.
As has become common in Mason/Delaware games, the play was very physical, and even a little chippy. A series of pushing and shoving between senior Patriot Mike Morrison and sophomore Blue Hen Hakim McCullar, which at one point left Morrison flat on his back (despite no foul being called either way), and ultimately culminated in a near-fight at half-time and offsetting technical fouls.
Coming out of the half, Delaware cut the Mason lead to nine with a Hagins dunk, leading to some nervous feelings for the Mason faithful who were beginning to notice a pattern in the team's inability to put away
supposedly lesser opponents. With a chance to cut further into the lead, the visitors missed a layup, which led to a quick runout and a clutch 3-pointer by freshman Vaughn Gray.
That was all the spark Mason needed, as a 15-4 run ended any hopes of a Blue Hen comeback. In the midst of the run, the excitable Monte Ross, well known in the CAA for his tendency to leave the coaches' box and for
voicing his opinions of the referees, earned his third technical foul in six career trips to Fairfax.
With the game well in hand, Hewitt began removing his starters, beginning with Pearson and Morrison. With the senior big men out of the game, sophomore guard Sherrod Wright went on a tear. He converted four of four free throws to push the home score to 80 and win free Chick-Fil-A sandwiches for the house (OH YEAH!), and then threw down a vicious dunk.
The next time down the court, Edwards unleashed one of the best passes I've ever seen: a four-hop cross-court diagonal pass on the fast break which split the entire defense (It was equivalent to what might be termed a worm burner in baseball). Wright, streaking to the basket at full speed, caught the pass and capped his night by converting a reverse layup one-on-three.
From that point on, with the score 84-58, the game belonged primarily to the walk-ons.
Despite the blowout nature of the game, the referees continued to prolong play with a string of foul calls against both teams. With the bitter memories of a 62 foul, nearly three hour marathon game at James Madison days earlier still fresh in their minds, the crowd was less than pleased, and booed any stoppage that was perceived to be unnecessary.
Mason never trailed in this one, feeding the post at will and earning one of their few blowouts of the 2011-12 season, while Pearson led the way with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 vicious blocks. Hagins, who was held scoreless in the first half, finished with 10 points and 6 boards.
But the biggest moment was when an ex-Marine's free throw line jumper fell cleanly through the net. Hoxie's basket was his only shot and only points of the season, and that special moment will be the main thing I cherish about this game.
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