NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. – George Mason played their toughest opponent to date on Saturday, and it showed very quickly. The Patriots took care of business in their first four games, three of which were at home, and they got away with turning the ball over 16 times on average. On Saturday, they were quickly staring at big deficits at Iona as the Gaels blitzed them 89-73. The game wasn’t even as close as the final might indicate, and it gives an idea of how much more challenging things are going to get for the Patriots.
Iona scored the game’s first 14 points and never looked back. The Patriots looked shell-shocked, and while they got untracked some later, scoring seven in a row to make it 34-12 at one point, they never got much momentum. They gave the ball away 11 times in the first half, but it must have seemed like 111 turnovers because Iona constantly turned them into points and basically ran them out of the gym. They had just four turnovers in the second half, and as a result actually ended up below average, but the damage was done. Iona had a 26-13 edge in points off turnovers.
“We didn’t come out ready to play from the start, and they got some live ball turnovers that led to layups we can’t defend, and they just kept rolling from there,” said Sherrod Wright, who was playing close to his hometown of Mount Vernon.
The Patriots have started well despite turning the ball over frequently, as they got away with it in the first four games. They came in averaging 16 turnovers a game, so this didn’t just become a concern on Saturday. It only became costly for the first time in this one.
“We have our moments where we get lax with the ball,” said head coach Paul Hewitt. “I didn’t think any turnovers that happened in the first half were forced, I thought it was simple over-dribbling.”
This isn’t a team lacking offensive ability, including at the point. Corey Edwards and Bryon Allen are both capable at that spot, although neither did much on Saturday. Allen was coming in off an injury and looked it to a degree, and he’s always been something of a high-risk, high-reward player as he can score but will also turn the ball over. The Patriots came into the game with 39 assists and 65 turnovers, and just about every Patriot has more turnovers than assists on the season. They had 13 and 15, respectively, on Saturday.
The Patriots played good defense in the first four games, a big reason they also out-rebounded teams by nine a game. They held opponents below 38 percent in the first four games before Iona shot 50 percent on Saturday, owing in some part to the easy transition baskets they got. But they also did well in the half court, with Iona getting 19 assists against just 11 turnovers. And with the bad start early, it snowballed from there.
“I thought we were getting good shots, but shots weren’t falling,” said Hewitt. “What I wasn’t happy with was that when we missed our shots, we let it impact our defense. I thought we got a little lax on defense, I thought we stopped fighting on defense.”
George Mason also started 4-0 without starting forward Erik Copes, who was suspended for the first six games for a violation of athletic department policy. Copes will help them on the boards when he returns, and that’s been an area of strength in part because they’ve played good defense.
Now the schedule gets tougher for George Mason. They head to Princeton on Monday, then come home for Rhode Island and South Florida before taking on Oklahoma in the BB&T Classic and then three games starting with Iowa State in the Diamond Head Classic. Copes will return for the Rhode Island game, just in time to boost them against a Ram team that has a little more going for it up front than they did last year.
George Mason will need to value the ball better and not let the offense affect the defense. Wright and fellow seniors need to lead this team like some of those they played with before whose intangibles were a big part of success. They ran up a 4-0 start against teams they should beat and largely at home, and now they have to prove themselves before their first run of Atlantic 10 games. Saturday’s loss against a team that should contend for the MAAC title wasn’t an auspicious start to that.