George Mason stays alive in CBI Finals

George Mason stays alive in CBI Finals
April 3, 2013, 10:45 pm
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The "I" in CBI does not stand for intimate, though Game 2 of the College Basketball Invitational finals played inside George Mason's occasional practice facility screamed close quarters.

With the 10,000-seat Patriot Center otherwise occupied because of a college fair, the Recreation and Athletic Complex gym, with its minimalist capacity, stepped in.

With Sherrod Wright scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and leading a parade to the free throw line, the Patriots forced a decisive third and final game by schooling Santa Clara in a 73-66 victory on Wednesday night before a sellout crowd of 1,280.

The Patriots (22-15) will host the finale at the roomy Patriot Center on Friday at 7 p.m.

The snug setting inside the modern facility built in 2009 lacked any of the usual high-tech trappings typically associated with today's venues. The baskets hung from the ceiling, no stanchion support. Two scoreboards on either end of the court only referenced "Home," "Guest," the time and period.

Rather than visual reminders of the Patriots 2006 Final Four appearance, banners showing previous wrestling and volleyball triumphs hung above the proceedings. Only a bare bones amount of corporate signage for the event's sponsor dotted the scene.

"It was a great atmosphere," said Patriots guard Bryon Allen who scored 15 points in the first game ever played at the RAC. "Felt like I was back in high school."

The largest member of the senior-less rotation, Erik Copes had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Patriots. George Mason never trailed and held the Broncos to 5 for 25 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.

Getting a head start on next season's preparations, the Patriots are 5-1 in this year's CBI.

"That's why we got into this event, to get these games," George Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. "More reps, more situations. We're playing our best ball of the year."

Like most George Mason home games, the only musical offerings came from the formidable Green Machine band, though even the ensemble went short-staffed because of the location's thin composition. Though short on numbers, the sound was long on percussive and thumping power especially in the tight space - and especially for the Santa Clara bench, which sat directly in front of the saxophones, horns and drums.

"I wanted to go over and shake the bandleader's hand. He's the most important guy here," Broncos coach Kerry Keating cracked.

After scoring 28 in the 81-73 Game 1 victory, Santa Clara guard Kevin Foster had 16 points. However, he went without a field goal during the first half, one in which the Patriots led by 16 points and ended up 39-26.

Perhaps it took the entire first half to adjust playing on a court painted for volleyball, but the Broncos opened the second half with a quick 7-0 spurt as the Patriots bungled possession after possession.

However, the Patriots reestablished a 10-point lead and maintained a comfortable margin despite scoring only two field goals over the final 9:02 thanks to sinking 15 of 20 free throws in that span and 30 overall. Santa Clara pulled closer at 70-66 with 16 ticks remaining after scoring six points in 44 seconds, but Mason held firm.

Speaking of experiences, Keating's focus is also on his team closing out the long season with a title, but he understands there is more to the cross-country journey than just playing ball. He expects his players will take advantage of the extra time in the Nation's Capital by visiting the standard tourist spots in the city.

However, upon learning that the rock band Green Day would be at the Patriot Center on Thursday, the coach seemingly had more interest in getting back stage passes for the show than checking out the latest Smithsonian exhibits himself.

Walking out of the press conference, Keating turned to reporters. "Doesn't Green Day sing the 'Time of Your Life'? There couldn't be a more fitting song for what's going on right now."