It felt like a first-round game in a tournament, not the semifinals. But George Mason will take its routine 62-52 victory over Western Michigan Wednesday in the sixth College Basketball Invitational. It put the Patriots into the three-game championship series, a just reward for their improved play after a disappointing final season in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Despite a paltry crowd of 1,684 at the Patriot Center, Atlantic-10-bound George Mason played with passion on Wednesday, especially on defense. After falling behind 17-8 in the first 8 minutes, 37 seconds, the Patriots limited the Broncos to 30.2 percent shooting the rest of the way.
Sophomore forward Jonathan Arledge scored 23 points as George Mason (21-14) won its third straight CBI game and advanced to the finals where it will play Santa Clara (24-11). Games are set for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (if necessary) with the sites yet to be determined.
George Mason committed 18 turnovers and shot only 36.7 percent overall and 2 of 16 from beyond the arc. But the Patriots’ defense was dominant. Led by sophomore guard Cory Edwards (five steals), they forced 23 turnovers, controlling the Broncos (22-13) who never made a serious run in the second half.
“The number one thing on the board today was disrupt them offensively — take them out of their sets because they really run their sets really well,” George Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. “We were getting our hands on balls.”
It was another positive sign of growth for a young George Mason team which doesn’t have a senior among its 11 rotation players, but has found something in this tournament, winning games by one point at College of Charleston and four points in overtime against Houston. The Patriots also had 13 assists on 18 baskets on Wednesday with junior Bryon Allen (three points, seven assists) guiding the offense.
“We’re moving the ball much better than we have all year,” Hewitt said. ‘When we move the ball, we’ve got some guys who can score it. Obviously we didn’t shoot the ball real well, but I was pleased with the shots we were getting.”
An 18-0 run in the first half was critical as it transformed a nine-point deficit into a nine-point lead. The George Mason defense forced nine turnovers during the spurt, including consecutive backcourt infractions. The 6-foot-9 Arledge scored five points in a span of two seconds, hitting two free throws, then taking a feed from Allen on a backcourt steal which produced a 3-point-play. Freshman Marko Gujanicic (eight points) added a 3-pointer from the deep wing as the Patriots took a lead that the Broncos never seriously challenged.
“It wasn’t the prettiest effort obviously,” George Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. “But I was happy to kind of grind out a win. For the first time in this event we looked a little dead-legged out there.”