by Matt Delaney
As Greensville County High School’s final shot arced into the basket, its swish served as the curtain call for George Mason’s varsity basketball team’s storied 2015-16 season.
Finishing the year at 29-1, the Mustangs suffered their lone defeat against Greensville County in a 66-63 overtime heartbreaker during Virginia’s 2A State semifinals.
The loss had a bite to it. Not only because defeat was alien to Mason’s campaign and concluded their historic run, but because the manner in which it came about was upsetting.
Greensville County’s star center Jordan Peebles’ fouled out to end the fourth quarter, carrying Mason to overtime and a 6-0 run to start the extra period. The Mustangs were in full control of their destiny, but with barely a minute left a three-pointer, three-point play and a final bucket from long range to beat the clock gave Greensville County the win.
“Hung in there and kept on fighting, as if [Peebles] was right there with them,” Greensville County head coach Antwan Walton said. “And my shooter finally came through for me at the right time. Just proud of these guys right now.”
Just as Mason benefitted from having the last possession against Graham High School last week, they faced the consequences for losing it against Greensville County. Senior guard Elliot Mercado turned the ball over with 48 seconds remaining, opening the team up to Greensville County’s eventual dagger.
“We’re [both] here for a reason, you’re not gonna get kids who’re gonna fold up,” head coach Chris Capannola said. “They knew who they needed to go to, we knew who we needed to go to. They hit that huge shot and that was it.”
That mistake was the coup de grâce in a game filled with them. Uncharacteristic errors pestered Mason from the opening tip and prevented the usual crescendo in performance that carried their 29 victories. Statistics reinforced the abnormality of Mason’s play. Their dependable bench was outscored by Greensville County’s 14-9 and the Mustangs shooters were frigidly cold from beyond the arc, making just 16 percent (3-19) of their three-point attempts.
It was clear the Mustangs were dwarfed by the moment. Virginia Commonwealth’s Siegel Center paled in comparison to the high school gyms Mason frequented all season and the players acted their age for the first time this year.
Nerves forced the team to face an old foe – a deficit – as they trailed for more than half of the 36 minutes of game time. However, despite rarely lagging behind for most of this season, the familiarity with losing in years past made it surmountable on the big stage.
“We weren’t used to losing these past couple of years, but before that it was a struggle,” Mercado said. Senior forward Robert Tartt added, “Nah, I don’t think [trailing] had anything to do with it. We made some careless mistakes that in 29 games we haven’t done…we just messed up and let them get ahead.”
Friday’s loss ended Mason’s landmark year. The Mustangs tore through the regular season, conference and regional tournaments undefeated and won their first ever Joe Cascio Holiday Classic. Tartt earned the school’s all-time scoring record and Falls Church witnessed the most dominant basketball team in city history.
All the hype fed into players and Capannola claiming it was “states or bust” for the senior-laden roster since November, an ambitious sentiment for a team that failed to make it out of the regional tournament under its current iteration. Even after falling a game and two victories short of their goal, players had no regrets professing their championship intentions in recent months.
“We felt like we could do it,” Tartt said. “So we’re gonna go out and do it. It’s not something we felt held down by, it was a goal.”
“It was something that motivated us,” senior guard Josh Allen added. “More than burdened us.”
Mature perspectives are the real jewel of this team. Mason was hardened by defeat during the two seasons after their previous trip to states (back in 2011-12) before finally breaking the mold with last year’s 24-2 record.
They’d experienced the lows, making the highs that much sweeter, and that outlook is why they can find the silver lining in such a bitter loss.
“We yell at each other, we fight, but we love each other because we’re just like a family,” Tartt said.
“Amazing chemistry,” Allen added. “This was the most fun basketball I’ve ever played because of the team I played with.”
When Capannola made Mercado the Mustangs new starting point guard as a freshman, it was the first step in a major rebuilding process for the program. Now four years later and with their run officially over, the two could sit back and appreciate how far they’ve come.
“After four years with this guy,” Mercado said cheekily, gesturing to Capannola seated to his right. “This was quite the team. We all knew coming into it, just didn’t work out in the end.”
“I told these guys, ‘the sun comes up tomorrow,” Capannola said. “This’ll sting for a while, but they’ll realize once everything’s over this was a hell of a run. They need to be real proud of that.”