Believe. That is the men’s basketball team motto for this season. Each player wears a bracelet with the word believe written on it.
The Patriots believed as they opened their season Friday with a 63-59 win over Virginia at the Patriot Center. It was their first ever win over Virginia in school history.
The bracelets, given by Hewitt, represent their belief in each other and as a team for this season.
“He [Coach Hewitt] said I believe in you guys. I fell like we can do a lot of great things with this team. I’ve been through a lot of teams and for him to say that shows he really believes in us,” Anali Okoloji said. “We belong here. We have to prove to people that we belong here. Even though we’re a CAA team, we are actually one of the better teams in the country. That is what I think.”
In front of a sold out crowd, junior guard Bryon Allen drained the go ahead three with only a minute left in regulation as the shot clock expired. Allen, who finished with 13 points, was also responsible for an early steal that electrified the crowd and got Mason off to a fast 5-0 run to start to the game. Marko Gujanici, a much talked about freshman, finished the night with six points and seven rebounds including a beautiful pass to Johnny Williams for one of his three assists. Sherrod Wright led the team with 15 points and showed why he was a preseason All-CAA pick.
Playing in his first game as a Patriot, Anali Okoloji showed passion and strong play throughout the night. The 6’8” sophomore contributed eight points and four rebounds in the winning effort.
Already one of the emotional leaders of the team, Okoloji tries to use his emotions to fire up his teammates and the fans.
“I’m just going to bring energy, it does not matter to me. If the crowd feeds off it, they feed off of it,” said Okoloji. “I just feel like as a unit we did really well.”
Okoloji credited the huge crowd present for the game for firing up the players.
“The atmosphere was amazing. When we hit shots down the line in the game, you could hear the whole stadium kind of buzz and feel the floor shake. You knew it was a big thing, a big moment. The whole school witnessed us win,” the Brooklyn native said. “The whole Mason Nation being behind us is big. They feed off us and we feed off them, the energy that they bring to the game.”
Mason used its up-tempo scheme to create open shots and easier opportunities. They struggled at times with rebounding and free throws but their shooting made up for it. Shooting 54.5 percent from the field, the Patriots also limited their turnovers to just ten.
Okoloji was not convinced the victory was in the bag until Bryon Allen made his two free throws with two seconds left, putting the Patriots up by four.
“I think a team like Virginia and those top-notch teams are used to people hitting big time shots. They practice game situations like us,” said Okoloji. “That was clutch. Those were big.”
Despite being such a huge win over an in-state rival, it is only one game. For a team with no seniors, they understand what they need to do.
“I tell our teammates to take it one game at a time, do not think too far ahead. We got Virgin Islands: do not think about that. Next we have Bucknell and after that we have Mercer. If we take it one game at a time, I think we’ll be a good team,” Okoloji said.
Okoloji believes the sky is the limit for this team heading into the rest of the season. “As long as everybody is on the same page and works hard together and nobody is trying to be selfish. The sky is the limit,” Okoloji said, who played 24 minutes against Virginia.
“If all of us have the same heart. Every game I play I’ll have the same type of energy. If we’re on the same page with each other, we will win against any team,” Okoloji said.
The Patriots will look to continue their momentum this Tuesday as they visit Bucknell followed by the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.