Arts & Entertainment

Mustangs Weather Overtime, Face Clarke in District Finals

THE MUSTANGS' JOEL CHANDLER (33) scored eight of his team-high 18 points in overtime to help Mason survive what was nearly a nine-point collapse. (Photo: Rich Johnson)Prewitt, Chandler Spark Mason High Effort at Start, Finish

For much of Tuesday night's Bull Run District semifinal game against Manassas Park, Mason junior Joel Chandler struggled. He struggled with possession, struggled finding his man on defense, struggled boxing out. But when his team needed him most, after giving away a nine-point fourth quarter lead and limping into overtime, Chandler returned to his usual superior standard and corralled an elusive win for the Mustangs.

With the clock ticking down below 10 seconds and the score tied at 57, Chandler drove the lane from the top of the key, drawing a foul and converting a layup off of the left side of the backboard. Nine seconds later, after Chandler drained the free throw and an errant three-point attempt by Manassas Park's Felix Clement, the Mason bench poured onto the floor to celebrate a victory that seemed destined to slip from their grasp.

“We totally lost defensive focus,” Mason Head Coach Chris Capannola said after the game. “We didn't box anyone out and we didn't find their shooters at the end of the game. But, we survived, and at this time of the year that's what you have to do.”

Trailing by nine at the start of the fourth quarter the Cougars rallied behind a series of second-chance points and the deft long-range shooting touch of Donald Farmer. Manassas regularly out-worked Mason for rebounds and loose balls, and a pair of put backs drew the Cougars within four with 3:37 remaining. Mason would extend that lead back to seven at the 1:42 mark after a step-back jumper by junior Josh Brew and a layup by sophomore Jordan Cheney off of a pretty dish from senior guard Alex Prewitt. Still, the Cougars refused to yield.

With under a minute remaining Farmer rained in a three-pointer from well beyond the arc and, after a miss by Brew from the foul line on the front end of a one-and-one, splashed another three-pointer from the right side just four seconds later to pull his team within one. After the teams each traded a foul shot apiece, two made free throws by senior Jake Johnson made it a three-point game with 24 seconds left.

But after a Mason time out, Farmer was somehow left unchecked and predictably made the Mustangs pay by nailing the game-tying shot and ultimately sending the contest to overtime.

Mason scored the first four points in the extra session, but Desmond McDonald drew the Cougars even with a layup with 30 seconds left, going up and under Chandler, who was playing with four fouls. That set the stage for Chandler's game-winning shot.

While it may not have been Chandler's strongest all around game this season, it certainly was for Mason's Prewitt. With Mason trailing 8-0 at the start of the game, the senior sixth man sparked his team when he entered the game at the four minute mark of the first quarter. He scored Mason's first four points of the game, driving into the lane and attacking the defense when his teammates had appeared tentative from the tip-off. While he would only add two more points on the night, he repeatedly hustled for loose balls, forcing two tie-ups. Twice he stole the ball and started fast breaks with his outlet passes and set up points for Cheney in the low post when the Mustangs struggled throughout the night to reach their low-post scoring threat with entry passes.

“This is what we've been waiting for all season from Alex,” Capannola said. “He's had three good games in a row and this was his best. He's one of the biggest reasons we've been so good down the stretch. I'm thrilled.”

As is Capanolla's team, who looked all-but certain to repeat last year's fate of a semi-final home loss to Manassas Park. Last season, the Cougars' Daniel Bigelow (seven points Tuesday), dropped a floater through the hoop to break an overtime tie and send the Mustangs packing.

“It felt like the same exact thing,” Capannola said, comparing the two semi-final games. “We didn't talk about it, but I think the guys were thinking about it. To our credit, our guys didn't let up.”

Chandler finished the game with 18 points, eight of those scored in overtime. Johnson added nine for the Mustangs, including a 5-for-6 performance from the foul line.

Conversely, the Cougars struggled from the charity stripe, converting just two of 11 foul shots in the third quarter and allowing the Mustangs to maintain enough of a lead to ultimately escape with a victory.

The win advances Mason to the Bull Run District championship on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. against Clarke County. That contest will cap what has been a wild end to the district season for Mason, who defeated the same Manassas Park team, 51-43, on a neutral court at Strasburg on Friday in a mini-playoff to secure the district's No. 2 seed. Cheney, who spent most of Tuesday's game in foul trouble, was a force in the Saturday matchup. He finished with 14 points, but it was his 11 rebounds and five blocked shots that paced a solid defensive that saw the Mustangs hold their opponent to just 18 second half points. The defensive intensity swung the tide in Mason's favor, as the Mustangs rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to win. Chandler also finished with a double-double in the game with 14 points and an equal number of rebounds.

Mason has now won four in a row after losing at Clarke County 84-48 on Feb. 5. On Feb. 14, the Mustangs closed out the regular season with a 62-54 home win over Strasburg. Chandler and Brew led the team with 13 and 11 points respectively.