A soft bank shot. A slicing layup. Three transition buckets. Just like that, the George Mason High School varsity girls’ basketball team was back on top.
After a sluggish start to Thursday night’s Bull Run District opener with Manassas Park, one in which the Mustangs fell behind 5-0, Mason finally found its groove, recovering thanks to a deft combination of speed in the open court and timely defense. Shortly following coach LaBryan Thomas’ quick-triggered timeout, the Mustangs cashed in on three consecutive baskets, surging to a 19-12 margin at the end of the first quarter.
“We don’t have our focus when we first come out at the beginning of games. It’s been like that all year,” Thomas said. “We’ve got two dominant seniors on the floor, but we lose sight of things here and there in the beginning. I don’t know if it’s nerves, but once they get it together, it’s hard to stop us.”
From there, it was all Mason. The defending Single A, Division-2 state champions opened up a 40-14 lead at halftime and never looked back, coasting to a 75-36 final margin against the Cougars at Mary Ellen Henderson Gym, the first time the Mustangs have cracked the 70-point plateau all year.
Mason, additionally, used a swarming full-court pressure defense to limit Manassas to just one second-quarter field goal, and held an opponent to under 40 points for the fifth time this season. The Mustangs finished with 27 steals overall, as the Cougars were able to score over 10 points in a quarter just once.
“Our team is quick,” Thomas said. “From one to eight, we’re really fast. When we’re playing defense really well, they get after it and start having fun. And when they’re having fun, it’s hard to stop us.”
Ultimately, Mason’s victory came thanks to an offense propelled by a substantial speed advantage, which allowed Thomas’ squad to turn its 18 total offensive rebounds into numerous transition buckets. Sophomore point guard Leah Roth, for one, capped of the Mustangs’ slow first quarter with a coast-to-coast layup as time expired.
“That’s something we really try to focus on is intensity, because that’s something that’s been lacking in the past few games,” senior Nicole Mitchell said. “We usually have that slow start, that’s something we really need to eradicate from our routine. We got refocused and just went out there and did what we needed to do.”
At halftime, three Mason players – Mitchell, senior Chantal Thomas and sophomore Lauren Kane – all had nine points, as the Mustangs built a comfortable-enough margin to allow them to coast throughout the second half.
But coming out of the break, Mason had its best eight minutes of basketball, building up a 63-23 lead by the end of the third period. With the bench emptied in the fourth, the Mustangs were able to withstand a bevy of Cougar three-pointers thanks to a comfortable then-40-point margin.
Mitchell, despite a lackluster shooting night from beyond the arc, finished with 16 points on 6-for-16 shooting and 12 boards. Kane shot 67 percent from the field, tallying 13 points and two blocks. According to coach Thomas, a large portion of Mason’s offensive success came thanks to attacking to the basket, catalyzed by Roth and Thomas’ perimeter play.
Freshman Stephanie Cheney came off the bench to contribute 12 points and four assists and improved on her team-leading free throw percentage by canning all four attempts from the charity stripe. Thomas added nine points and a game-high five steals, while Roth tacked on five assists. Sophomore Bria Platenburg and junior Abby Johansen added seven and six points, respectively.
The Cougars were unable to get anything going offensively, aside from a few three-pointers in the final period. Senior Che Brown and junior Erica Clayton each finished with 13 points, though no other Manassas player had over four points overall as the Cougars dropped to 7-5 on the year.
With a Saturday day matchup on the road at Colonial Beach looming after a 54-32 win Wednesday at Briar Woods, the Mustangs have a week to ready themselves before Thursday’s home date with Bull Run rival Madison County.
For now, though, in the middle of a five-game, eight-day stretch, Mason can rest easy knowing its 39-point Bull Run opener victory made a statement.
“Here we come,” Thomas said when asked what kind of message this game sent. “It’s just like I keep telling our kids. We have a bulls-eye on our back and we have to come to play every single night. And if we don’t, it’s going to be hard to put another state banner on that board.”