After a three-game losing streak, the George Mason High School varsity boys’ basketball team finally got the ball rolling.
Thanks to a 12-2 run over the final three minutes of play, the Mustangs secured their second consecutive victory Friday night, withstanding a late charge by the Knights and avoided a third-quarter collapse to win 73-62 and score 70 points for the first time in over two years. The last time Mason scored 70 was Dec. 20, 2007.
Down nine at halftime – the biggest margin before the final score — Avalon cut the deficit to two behind a few quick transition buckets and a flurry of shots from beyond the arc. At the end of the period, though, Mason senior Mike Wolfe drained a three to push the Mustangs’ lead up to four. From there, coach Chris Capannola’s team never looked back.
“All year, the third quarter has been our weakest quarter,” said Wolfe, who finished with five points. “Every game we’ve been down or struggling in the third but the fourth has been our best quarter. We just need to learn to put teams away in the first half.”
With less than two minutes remaining, Mason’s defense took over, forcing back-to-back turnovers capped off by wide-open layups in transition by sophomore Nate Ogle and junior Patrick Rollo. Freshman point guard Aaron Young solidified the victory with six points in the final minute, including canning all four of his free throws.
Young, who finished with a team-high 17 points, spearheaded the final surge to give Mason its highest point total all season.
Mason’s scoring versus the Knights could be partially attributed to the squad’s vast depth. Seven of Capannola’s players tallied at least seven points, as the Mustangs shot 74 percent from the charity stripe. But ultimately, pressure defense did in Avalon.
“That full court press bothered us, definitely,” Knights coach Richard McPherson said. “We haven’t had any problems against pressure all season. This is our ninth game and this is the first time that we couldn’t handle the pressure. It really worked against us.”
The Knights were led by sophomore guard David Collins, who finished with 18 points, six rebounds and six steals, though Mason’s defense coerced him into four turnovers. Avalon finished with 15 total turnovers, many of which resulted in fast-break layups for the Mustangs in the open court.
“We’ve stressed transition since November,” Capannola said. “We’re concerned with rebounding so much that when we do get the board we stand around to make sure we have it. We got some easy buckets and that’s what saved us. That aggressive mindset is hard to instill but hopefully we took a step forward with that tonight.”
Though junior guard Lacey Smith also had 20 points for Avalon, including three from beyond the arc, McPherson’s unit only had five players register baskets. Sophomore Steven Parker and sophomore Richard Tyaba finished with 11 and 10, respectively. As a team, the undersized Knights crashed the boards with great success, ending up with 18 offensive rebounds.
For Mason, brothers Ben and Jeremy Stewart each had eight points, while Ogle finished with nine. Rollo and junior Brandon Alexander both came off the bench to combine for 14 and, while senior Jordan Cheney initially struggled from the floor, misfiring on his first four shots, the Swarthmore College-recruit ended up with eight.
“It’s nice to plug guys in and not lose too much,” Capannola said. “We play as many guys as we think we can and everyone contributed tonight offensively. You wish we had more points in the paint but we got the shots we wanted.”
Third-quarter problems have plagued the 6-7 Mustangs all year long, and Friday night was no exception. Even in the fourth quarter, Mason gave Avalon plenty of chances to climb back into the game, but the hot-shooting Smith fell cold at the wrong time. On a six-shot possession midway through the period, the Knights only ended up with one made free throw to show for it, setting the stage for the Mustangs to go on their definitive run.
“It’s been that way for six of our games,” Capannola said. “We’re just flat as can be in the third. If we’re up in the fourth I’m not too concerned because we’ve shown that we can hold on or even pull away, and that’s a really good trait to have. If we played better in the third quarter, these games wouldn’t be as close.”
Mason, though, rarely trailed. Avalon’s biggest lead came with just under four minutes left in the first quarter when Smith nailed a three to put his squad up by five. A 9-0 run by the Mustangs, though, quickly put that to bed.
The victory came on the heels of Wednesday’s Bull Run District opener at Manassas Park. Similar events unfolded, with Mason ceding a nine-point halftime lead to edge out the 64-60 victory. The Cougars led by seven midway through the fourth quarter, though two dagger three-pointers by Young helped the Mustangs open up district play on a winning note.
Versus the Cougars, Cheney finished with 19 points, 12 boards and four blocks, while Young added 18. Jeremy Stewart, who tacked on 10, combined with Cheney and Young to score all 20 of Mason’s fourth-quarter buckets. Senior Desmond McDonald led the way for the Cougars with 26 points, though only one other Manassas Park player scored above six.
With next Friday’s contest against undefeated and 2009 state quarterfinalist Madison County looming, the Mustangs have only a Jan. 12 date with Freedom High to figure out their third-quarter and rebounding issues. Assuming they can do that, though, the youth and speed of Capannola’s squad could prove to be a deadly combination.
“Everything we did tonight was self-made,” Wolfe said. “Our 20 turnovers weren’t from them stealing the ball; it was from us throwing it away. We fall asleep and then in the fourth quarter we finally wake up. And that’s how we should play the whole game – in people’s faces, diving for balls. But we just need to take this as a positive going into Tuesday and then Friday.”