Mustangs Battle Slow Start, Size in Region Final Loss

MASON’S DEFENSE has been sharp ever since the calendar flipped, but the wiggle room for defensive lapses is slim once the state tournament starts Friday. (Photo: Carol Sly)

With the title of “Region B champion” on the line, George Mason High School’s boys basketball team fell just short as East Rockingham High School snagged a 59-52 win on Saturday.

Mason (18-8) had a tall task — literally — against a towering East Rock lineup throughout the championship match. Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that the hometown Eagles would play bully ball down low against a smaller, but still scrappy Mustangs squad. But Mason held its own on the boards by often out-jumping and outmuscling its lankier opponents; instead, the Mustangs were outgunned on the perimeter, where East Rock’s early barrage of three-pointers had Mason scrambling to keep pace.

“I think we did [feel confident],” senior forward Hollman Smith said about coming into the game. “But that first quarter where [East Rock senior forward Dalton Jefferson] hit five threes, that got us kind of down on ourselves, so hopefully he’s not that hot if we see them again.”

Outside of two fast break buckets by the Eagles, Jefferson went 5-for-5 from beyond the arc to spearhead a 19-10 quarter in favor of the eventual region champs. Mason didn’t roll over though, and had its best quarter of the night to respond.

Senior guard Max Ashton opened a 10-0 run by sinking a pair at the line before he followed that up with a three of his own. Senior guard Jay Nesson joined in when junior forward Daniel Miller kicked it out to Ashton on the elbow who made the extra pass to Nesson for his own straightaway three. While East Rock was bringing the ball up, a bad dribble allowed sophomore guard Deven Martino to nab a steal and take it to the hole for an easy bucket, giving Mason a slim lead at 20-19. The Eagles went on a short 5-1 run themselves until sophomore guard Robert Asel broke their stride with a three-point play to send the game to halftime tied at 24.

Mason’s narrow margin of error started to take its toll as it gradually succumbed to East Rock’s length in the second half.

Both teams traded blows early on in the third quarter, as a three-pointer and a drive by the Eagles was answered by a Martino three one possession and an Asel-to-Smith connection inside on another. Five consecutive points by Ashton, with an East Rock three sandwiched in between, had the Mustangs within arm’s reach entering the fourth trailing 38-35.

After eclipsing the Eagles for the third time on the night with Ashton’s midrange jumper to go up 39-38, Mason finally bent a little too far. East Rock mounted an 11-0 run that spanned the 5:55 mark down to about two and a half minutes remaining. The Mustangs needed some quick scoring, and effectively cut the lead to 54-50 with under a minute to go. But East Rock’s five straight points in response sealed the game.

Despite the loss, Mason head coach Chris Capannola was chipper about the Mustangs’ performance and how the team stacks up going into the state quarterfinals tomorrow night. Still, he knows Mason’s strength in a seasoned Ashton and Smith along with a maturing Martino need performing at a high level – and in unison – to give themselves a shot in the Class 2 state tournament.

“Your best have to be their best at the same time,” Capannola said. “We’re close, we’re sort of up-and-down a little bit. But if those three guys make their shots on Friday, it’ll be a different story.”

Mason will travel to Godwin High School on Friday to face Region A winner Goochland High School in the state quarterfinal.