Uneven 4th Quarter Ends Mason’s Season in State Quarterfinals

SENIOR GUARD Max Ashton and the rest of Mustangs were hot in the first half, with Ashton scoring 13 of his 16 points in the game during the first two quarters. (Photo: Carol Sly)

George Mason High School sophomore guard Deven Martino spun out of a trap, drove to the rim and hit a scoop layup that ping-ponged off both sides of the rim before sinking right at the buzzer. Only problem was Martino’s bucket concluded the third quarter; the fourth would tell a much different story for the Mustangs in their 60-47 loss to Region A champions Goochland High School in the Class 2 state quarterfinal.

“Once they took the lead, you felt the momentum completely switch,” Mason head coach Chris Capannola said. “We just needed a bucket to calm things down and I don’t think we ever got it…It just snowballs from that point.”

The final eight minutes saw Mason’s (18-9) moxie evaporate into the air at Richmond’s Godwin High School and rain down upon a Goochland team that looked rejuvenated after three wonky quarters. A short jumper along the baseline by the Bulldogs pushed them ahead 41-40 and gave them their first lead since being up 12-6 with three minutes to go in the first quarter.

The Mustangs would trail for the rest of the game despite having opportunities to overcome the deficit. Goochland’s go-ahead bucket came at the 6:21 mark, but the Bulldogs weren’t exceptionally dominant in the possessions that followed. They continued to chuck deep threes, committed a charge on one offensive series and were stripped on another. But the Mustangs, caged in by foul trouble on defense and full-court pressure on offense, became harried.

“Their pressure rattled us a bit. We didn’t have an answer right away. We missed a few layups and they hit a few free throws,” senior guard Max Ashton said. “The lead just ballooned at the end and it kind of deflated us.”

Mason searched for a haymaking headshot in the form of a three-pointer instead of working body blows inside the paint to reestablish its hold in the game. Three out of four possessions following Goochland’s lead-taking jumper, Martino and Ashton hoisted up threes. It was Martino’s second attempt — a wide open look in the left corner — and its unsettling clang off the iron that articulated Mason’s waning chance of advancing to the Mustang faithful.

Ashton strided in for a layup to bring Mason within one at 43-42. Capannola sensed his team was reeling but opted to wait for one more bucket before calling a timeout. However, a fruitful trip to the line and a three-point play by the Bulldogs put the region champs up 48-42 with 3:01 to go. At that point a Goochland crowd that had been rowdy throughout became rambunctious and hard for the Mustangs to block out.

A COMBINATION OF intensified pressure on offense and foul trouble on defense gave the Mustangs little room to operate comfortably throughout the second half. (Photo: Carol Sly)

“We don’t play in front crowds like this anywhere — ever. It caused us to freeze up,” Capannola added. “It doesn’t have to be much, just a little bit, but it was just enough for them to get the lead and that was about the end of it.”

Ashton agreed that the crowd messed with Mason’s communication on the court, but didn’t feel the atmosphere dampened the Mustangs’ confidence as much as the inability find the twine did.

Prior to the forgettable fourth quarter, Mason was having its performance of the season. After keeping their footing from Goochland’s early surge to go up 12-6, the Mustangs took command. Ashton hit a straightaway three the next possession, senior forward Seid Lejlic had a putback bucket and sophomore guard Robert Asel converted a three point play to follow. Senior forward Hollman Smith also put a miss back in the rack and Ashton hit a mid-range jumper from the free throw line as the first quarter clock expired to end on a 12-2 run.

Coming into the second up 18-14, the Mustangs didn’t relax. The Bulldogs leveled the contest at 18 when Ashton and Martino guided a 7-0 run to retake control. Goochland bounced back again to get within one at 25-24, but Ashton’s post-up two and another mid-range jumper pushed the game to its 29-24 halftime score.

A floater from Martino and an elbow three from Smith stretched Mason’s lead to 33-26 with four minutes to go in the third. The margin remained at seven when Martino’s layup underneath had the Mustangs up 38-31, until a short 6-0 Bulldog run was stopped by Martino’s end-of-third buzzer beater.

The end of the season marked the end of an era for Mason in more ways than one. Ashton and Smith both scored over 1,000 points this season, with Ashton becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer in the process. The time to reflect came two games too early, but the gravitas of his individual accomplishments wasn’t lost on him.

“It was really cool to leave my mark like that and having an undefeated Bull Run season. It was a great season with these guys and I’m just fortunate to play with them,” Ashton said.

Following the game, Capannola made his retirement from Mason’s program official after nearly 20 years at the helm. He was glad he got to end his tenure with this crew and has faith the team will be in good hands with the players coming up. Capannola added it was time for someone else to run the program and see what they can do.