Arts & Entertainment

Chandler’s 24 Points, Cheney’s Buzzer-Beater Lift Mason High

THE MUSTANGS' JOEL CHANDLER (33) takes the ball up in between four defenders and draws the foul in the late fourth quarter Tuesday night. (Photo: Rich Johnson)For GMHS, Outcome Outweighs Ugliness as Mustangs March On

Words like “pretty,” “masterful” and “flawless” will never be used to describe the Mustangs' opening-round home game in the Region B Tournament. However, more accurate terms like “ugly,” “disjointed” and “poorly executed” will sit just fine with the George Mason High School boys varsity basketball team after a buzzer-beating shot by sophomore Jordan Cheney gave them a 52-50 victory over Wilson Memorial Tuesday night.

With 2.9 seconds on the clock, using a play drawn up by assistant coach Mike Gilroy, Mason senior Alex Prewitt floated an inbounds pass from the near baseline to Cheney who caught it in the lane about five feet from the basket and lofted it towards the hoop. The ball rattled around all parts of the rim, but Cheney's soft touch was just enough to finally coax it through the net for the win.

“You figure with a kid who's 6-foot-7 and with all of the defenders' backs turned in the zone, just lob it up there and see what happens,” Mason Head Coach Chris Capannola said. “Boy I'm proud of that kid [Cheney]. He came through. Biggest shot of his young life.”

The final sequence was set up by a strange series of events. After bleeding time from the clock to set up a last shot with the score tied at 50, Mason appeared to have squandered their chance to win the game in regulation.The Mustangs' Joel Chandler slipped and dribbled the ball off a defender's foot as he drove to the hoop. The ball rolled out of bounds with 2.9 seconds left, but the referee awarded possession to the Hornets, believing the ball had struck Chandler's foot.

Fortune would smile on the Mustangs however, as the Hornets turned over the ball after one player passed to a teammate standing out of bounds behind the baseline. While such a strategy is a legal maneuver after a made basket, it is illegal when the ball simply goes out of bounds. Call it karma by confusion.

Though tragic for the Hornets, the awkward ending was befitting of the game's overall aesthetic. Marred by miscues and with a pace that was tempered by turnovers, the second half slogged its way to completion, always on course for a last-second, nail-biting conclusion. While both teams held two possession leads in the second half, neither squad could distance itself from the other. Time and again the Hornets or the Mustangs would make a run, only to be derailed by missed shots from close range, traveling calls, errant passes or difficulties handling the ball.

Mason led by four, 42-38, after a transition layup by Cheney, but the Mustangs went scoreless for the quarter's remaining three and a half minutes. Instead of falling off for good, the only two baskets the Hornets could muster — a put-back after three offensive rebounds by Hunter Cullen (19 points) and a turnaround jumper by Dylan Hudson — drew them even with the Mustangs.

The fourth quarter — no thing of beauty itself with just 18 combined points from both teams — featured the opposite dynamic. After a jump shot by Cullen put Wilson up 46-42 at the 6:34 mark, tough defense by the Mustangs allowed Chandler to put his team on his back and close the gap singlehandedly. Chandler scored the first eight points for Mason in the fourth, tying the game at 50 with 1:33 to go after stealing the ball, taking it coast to coast, converting the layup and drawing — and hitting — a foul shot.

Chandler finished with a game-high 24 points, while Cheney added 14, with none bigger than his final two.

For all of the turnovers and missed opportunities, Capannola was just happy to escape with the win, one that keeps the Mustangs' season alive.

“We never let them get away. We kept our composure and that's what you have to do,” he said. “Come tomorrow when we start practice at 4 p.m., all of those turnovers don't mean a thing.”

While the loss ended Wilson Memorial's season, Mason will now travel to the Region B semifinals at Goochland High School where they will face top-seeded Buckingham on Thursday at 7 p.m. A win in that contest would send the Mustangs on to the finals on March 1, and also give them a berth in the Virginia State Tournament. That would be the first such appearance for the Mason boys basketball team since 2001.

A victory over Buckingham would likely set up a rematch of the Bull Run District title game with Clarke County. The Eagles pulled ahead early and refused to relinquish their lead on their home court  last Thursday. Clarke's Chandler Rhodes scored 26 first-half points, and while he was nearly matched in the second half by 19 from Joel Chandler, it was too much for the Mustangs to overcome. Mason ultimately fell by a final margin of 75-64.

Since Mason upset the Eagles 44-43 in the teams' first meeting in Falls Church this season, Clarke has easily bested the Mustangs, also winning 84-48 on Feb. 5.