They also left entirely deflated, after leading for most of the game and then having stormed back from a six-point deficit at 2:46 to force a 61-61 deadlock with 1:16 still to play. It was the tenth tied score and the home crowd of 5,637 was likely thinking they would see the fourth overtime in The Hump this season.
It didn't happen. A forced corner-jumper by guard Richard Delk caromed off the iron and right where both center Morgan and forward Rhodes, bracketing a Patriot, could swat at the rebound and watch it roll in at 0:38. "If I have any say-so in that I think I got the tip-in," said forward Rhodes. "But it was a great effort by Wesley Morgan," he added while looking across the interview room at his grinning teammate.
"I definitely had the tip, there was no arguing that fact!" said Morgan, who indeed was credited with the board and bucket. But at the time neither was joking around, as there was still half-a-minute for George Mason to answer or even win outright. This didn't happen either, though there was plenty of dramatics remaining including Rhodes missing the front end of a 1-and-1 at 19.9 seconds after he definitely rebounded a blocked Patriot shot to tie.
George Mason never got another chance, because backup forward Michael Boler batted a pass out of bounds at 5.8 seconds, State cleverly committed a harmless sixth foul at 4.3 ticks, and stifling coverage on the goal-end forced the inbounds pass to be lobbed into the backcourt. Too far for the unsuspecting Tony Skinn, who let it get over his head and to the other free throw line before he got possession. Skinn drove back across midcourt only to fumble the ball towards forward Will Thomas, who had to heave a turnaround jumper from 16 feet that missed at the horn. "We were just into them real hard," said forward Jamont Gordon of the successful last-minute guarding.
"It was just everybody playing with toughness and coming together," Rhodes said. "We knew we had to win this one." Indeed the win not only let State end the pre-conference schedule with a win, but a ‘RPI' win at that. GMU came in with an unofficial power-rating of 40th while State is only 141 in the same list.
"Like always with this team, you never know when and what to expect," said Stansbury. "But the one thing that was consistent, we played with tremendous effort." Effort enough to hold a team that had come in shooting 49.6% to just 38.8% accuracy, and to survive an unexpectedly strong performance by the Patriots on the backboards where they beat the bigger Bulldogs 38-33.
Yet it was the rebounds that counted most, those off misses by both squads in the decisive minutes, which ended up in Bulldog hands. "I just didn't want to lose," said Rhodes, who would have notched a double-double if that contested tip-in had gone his way. The sophomore still tallied 10 points and nine boards, while Morgan had ten points also and eight rebounds.
The big Bulldog scorers were Gordon with 16 points and Reginald Delk with 15. The pair combined for 70 minutes of action, yet still came up clutch in the decisive final seconds. Richard Delk put in 33 minutes at the point, as senior point guard Jamall Edmondson did not dress out due to an aggravated leg strain. He wasn't the only Dog sitting out the evening. Senior guard Dietric Slater was suspended for this game, for what Stansbury called breaking a team rule. And a couple of freshmen, center Vernon Goodridge and forward Jerrell Houston, did not participate by "coach's decision" as Stansbury put it without explaining. All three of these were dressed out.
"We knew it was going to take a special effort and we got that," the coach said. "We had some guys play special because of some situations on our team."
"I thought it was a heck of a college basketball game," GMU Coach Jim Larranaga said. Certainly he was a heck of a lot happier at halftime as his team led 32-25, having taken advantage of a young and thin Bulldog backcourt to set up good shots and make 44% of them. The Patriot attack was balanced and often baffling as State tried for the first time this season to play primarily man-to-man defense.
"They spread the court out and penetrate real well, and kick it to the open man," Reginald Delk said. "We had to adjust to that." The first half story was also told by the ball-handling contrast, as GMU had ten assists by intermission while State had nine turnovers.
The Bulldogs made a couple of runs at catching up in the second half and finally did at 13:59 as Reginald Delk first buried a trey and came back with a free throw for a 41-41 score. Getting in front was tougher. It took four-straight points from Rhodes and a pair of Gordon free throws at 7:11 for State to take a lead for the first time since 9:38 of the initial half.
Then it was the Patriots' turn to rally, twice, coming back from 55-50 and 61-55 to even the board. The Bulldogs looked in good shape with that six-point lead at 2:46 as Morgan cashed in free throws and GMU missed a shot. But the Patriots extended their defense and the young, and tiring, Dog guards turned it over three-straight times. The first two became flying layups; the third tied things up when forward Will Thomas got loose for a dunk at 1:10.
George Mason even forced the miss by Richard Delk that hit only iron, but at the cost of letting Morgan and Rhodes get perfect rebounding positions. And it was the visiting team that cracked on the other end as State tightened up on defense to force two time-wasting misplays of the ball. "Everybody played a key part in that," said Morgan. "It was just energy, the crowd had us going. And we had to get this win."
Stansbury also noted the help from the seats. "What a tremendous crowd for December 30. Give them an assist for winning this game." That was easy to do as the Bulldog players tallied only six assists all evening.
Campbell led all scorers with 21 points, nine on treys, for GMU, while center Jai Lewis fouled out with 11 points and eight rebounds and Thomas had 10 points with nine boards. The Patriots also used a short roster with seven players taking care of all but one minute.
The Bulldogs, who last played on December 21 in Puerto Rico, get another week off from competition before opening SEC season January 7 at home against Arkansas. Stansbury, who will keep the team on campus all week for practices, valued the 10th win of the season more than the rest. "It's the kind of game where you need to get the win, for sure," he said.
"We didn't like the scheduling of it, we didn't know what kind of crowd we'd have knowing the students were gone. And we knew how good George Mason was. (But) We wanted that type of competition before SEC play."