RICHMOND – Unable to make it beyond the semifinals in 2001 and 2010, this season Coach Chris Capannola’s George Mason High boys basketball team toughed their way into last Saturday’s VHSL Group A, Division 2 state championship game with their best player sidelined by an injury, but wound up being defeated by a taller and stronger Lancaster team, 66-51.
The appearance in the title game marked the farthest the Mason boys basketball program progressed in a state tournament since 1955, when it won the championship.
The final score Saturday marked the biggest lead that Lancaster had the entire game. Mason fell down by 10 in the first quarter, and although they pulled to within five in the third and six in the fourth period, and possession, the Mustangs could not make it all the way back.
Normally a sharp shooting team specializing in 3-pointers, Mason went only 3-20 from beyond the stripe. “That kind of shooting won’t get it done,” Capannola said after the game, “not against an opponent that talented.”
Speak of talent, Capannola said this year’s team was the most talented, overall, he’s had among the three Mason teams he’s taken to the state tournament since 2001.
Its biggest talent, senior Nate Ogle, was forced to sit in street clothes on the bench in both the semifinal and final games, his right wrist in a heavily wrapped cast to protect a broken wrist. Mason toughed out the semifinal to defeat Fort Chiswell 62-50 on Friday, but his strength and inside moves were sorely missed in the final.
“We had decided that if we couldn’t win with him, we’d win for him,” Capannola said when the team learned last week it wouldn’t have him on the court last weekend. He broke the wrist during the quarterfinal win against Essex the weekend before. “He’s our leader, our emotional hub.”
Asked by reporters after how it felt to be stuck on the bench in the semifinal and championship games, Ogle said, “Watching my brothers work their asses off was…” and his voice trailed off with emotion.
Capannola praised the work of Ogle’s stand-in, junior forward Will Nunley. Nunley scored 17 points in the title game, leading all rebounders with nine, although Capannola said that Nunley “goes over people, while Nate (Ogle) goes through their midst.” Nunley also scored 13 filling in for Ogle in the semifinal win.
Mason’s leading scorer and field general senior guard Noel Obusan played an outstanding championship game, leading Mason scorers with 21 and picking off five steals after scoring 15 in the semifinal. His last game in high school, he said he’s hoping to play at the college level next year.
In the title game, Obusan and Nunley accounted for 38 of Mason’s 51 points as the team’s three top 3-point shooters went 2 for 18.
“This team has a real family, team concept,” Capannola added. “They are really together. They hang out together, and are always for each other. That’s been a hallmark of all the three teams I’ve coached into the state final four.”
In the semifinal Friday, the Mustang boys defeated Fort Chiswell as Nunley, at 6 ft. 4 in. and lean was pitted against Fort Chiswell’s bulky 6 ft. 6 in. Coleman Thomas.
Of Nunley’s 13 total points, 10 came in the third period and Mason’s collapsing defense and key contributions from other subs kept Thomas at bay and Mason in the lead throughout the second half.
Mason lost the lead only once, briefly midway through the second period after jumping out to a 10-2 lead early and leading 14-11 after the first period. The Pioneers took a 15-14 lead opening the second period, but Mason rallied as Philippe Griffiths hit two 3-pointers to give Mason the lead back, which it never relinquished.
Nunley led Mason in rebounding with seven, but overall Mason was outrebounded 38-31, with Thomas grabbing 11 and scoring 13 points to lead his team in both departments. About his 10-point third period, that also included three rebounds, Nunley said that after hitting only one basket in the first half, Capannola told him at halftime to “turn and face the basket,” and he did.
Pioneers Coach Derrick Jackson praised Nunley’s play, saying his team was not prepared for “the guy with the high elbows.”