A soft bank shot. A slicing layup. Three transition buckets. And 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 (7-5), 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. “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-Two 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 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.
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 off 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 Chantal Thomas’ perimeter play.
Freshman Stepanie 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.
The Mustangs, currently ranked fourth in the state in VirginiaPreps.com’s AP Poll, took a journey to the beach Saturday, rolling over Region A’s Colonial Beach, 48-20, improving their overall record to 9-2.
The rare weekend slate served as ample opportunity for Thomas’ starters to see limited game action, resting up for the lengthy grind of district play. Against the injury-depleted Drifters, the Mustangs’ strong reserves took center-stage.
“The latter part of our bench played early and did really well,” coach Thomas said. “It’s great to have our bench stay involved because we may need that down the line. They became battle-tested thanks to this game.”
With this Wednesday’s non-district match-up against Briar Woods, whom the Mustangs beat on the road last week 54-32, paired back-to-back with Thursday night’s Bull Run home contest with Madison County, Mason has little time to rest easy. Coming off a 44-31 loss to Strasburg, the Mountaineers are struggling and sit at 2-9 overall. Mason’s history versus Madison County, though, indicates far less than an expected cakewalk.
“We have a curse,” coach Thomas said. “Ever since I’ve been coaching on the girls’ side, we’ve never played Madison County well, so I expect nothing different. We have to come to play because they will.”