by Matt Delaney
A wild 74-72 finale over Graham High School preserves George Mason’s varsity boys basketball team undefeated season and sends them to Virginia’s 2A State semi-finals in Richmond this weekend.
After earning a berth into the state tourney with relative ease, the Mustangs were aware that competitors from this point forward won’t accept defeat passively nor will they play like any teams they’ve encountered previously.
Most of all, Mason knows their own strengths will be nullified, forcing them to play (and win) in ways they aren’t comfortable with. Graham was a poignant reminder of that.
“These teams are better than any teams that we’ve played before,” senior guard Josh Allen said. “But we have a lot of clutch and experienced players who step up when they need to, so if we win by one or 100 we advance. As long as it goes in that’s all that matters.”
It took Mason the entire 32 minutes of regulation to defeat Region 2A West’s four-seed. The G-Men responded from a dismal first half where they trailed 22-5 midway through the second quarter with a scoring spree in the third that put Mason on their heels. Entering the fourth quarter, the Mustangs’ lead was trimmed to one at 44-43 and momentum began to swing in Graham’s favor.
Right on cue, the experienced players made their presence felt.
Senior forward Robert Tartt returned to action after foul trouble benched him for the third quarter and paced Mason’s offense with 18 points. However, Tartt’s resurgence into the game didn’t decide it. At 72-67 with a minute remaining, Graham managed a five-point swing thanks to a bucket down low, a free throw and another bucket off a Mustang turnover that knotted the score at 72.
With 12 seconds remaining, senior guard Elliot Mercado linked up with senior forward Douglas Bossart for the game’s biggest moment when Mercado assisted Bossart’s go-ahead lay-up right before time expired.
The exhilarating conclusion left those in attendance on edge, but head coach Chris Capannola knew his veterans would rise to the occasion when prompted.
“Elliot’s gonna make a play there. He’s a four-year kid [and] I had the utmost confidence he was gonna make the right play,” Capannola said. “When they stepped out on him it was an easy dump-off for a bucket. Douglas finished it and that was it.”
Mason’s bench rose to the challenge as well. Receiving a lighter workload in recent weeks, the group was called upon against Graham when sixth-man stalwart senior guard D’Montae Noble had to miss Saturday’s game due to a rugby tournament in Las Vegas.
Sophomore forward Tim Andrianarison, junior forward Dustin Green and senior forward Brandon Ward helped fill the void Noble left with big minutes down the stretch that kept the G-Men at bay.
“We knew it would be hard to do without [Noble] because of what he does for the team,” Allen said. “But we knew we had a deep enough bench that we could still make the plays we needed to and still play basketball.”
Noble rejoins the team for this weekend’s final push toward a state title, but will also learn that obstacles en route to a championship aren’t just confined to the hardwood.
Saturday’s quarterfinal served as a baptism-by-fire for the hectic atmosphere, from fan commentary to blaring speakers, that envelopes the action on the court. In Richmond, it will only intensify.
Allen embraces the added noise, feeling it contributes to his good play. Though in the likely instance things do become too harried for Mason, Capannola knows how to reign in his team.
“Honestly, when they’re on the court and looking at me I do this,” Capannola said while demonstrating his tactic – to tap both index fingers on his temples. “Just [reminding them to] ‘calm down’ because you have to be able to not hear that [but] hear what I’m saying and your teammates are saying. We’re pretty good at that.”
Mason can savor their win, but not for long. Friday morning they make their final push for the title starting with the state tournament’s Cinderella story, Greensville County High School.
Entering the Region 2A tournament a third-seed, Greensville County went on the road to beat King William High School and Page County High School handily before losing their third road contest in a week to Bluestone High School 64-62 in the Region semis.
Last Friday in Salem, VA the Eagles upset last year’s 2A State runner-up Dan River High School 67-62 in quarterfinal thanks to center Jordan Peebles’ 35-point effort. Peebles, standing at 6’5, commanded the paint with ease and proved worthy of Conference 34’s Player of the Year honors against Dan River.
Now the Mustangs are tasked with quieting the good vibes Greensville County has been riding off the past three weeks. As Mason was reminded of this past weekend, seeding only determines who you play – not who wins – and will be sure to bring their A-game to Richmond.