Fox Parker, Staff Writer

The George Mason University men’s basketball team’s 76-72 season-opening win over the Liberty Flames could prove to be microcosm of the season to come.

The Patriots were brilliant at times and erratic at times, building up a 19-point lead only to see it dwindle to three with 2:34 to play.

The game, which appeared to be in hand midway through the second half, was slipping away from the Patriots until freshman forward Luke Hancock made a fumbling jump shot and, sophomore guard Andre Cornelius made game-sealing free throws.

“We are a very interesting team, aren’t we?” said Head Coach Jim Larranaga. “We can play very well for a while, [but] there are always going to be periods whe . . . there’s a little bit of a letdown.”

Last season’s leader in just about every statistical category (scoring, assists, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, and minutes), junior point guard Cam Long could only watch from the bench as his young squad allowed a commanding lead turn into a contested advantage.

Long left the game with 17 minutes remaining due to cramps in both legs.

“We never really got a good flow offensively,” said Larranaga of the offense without Long. “I would have liked to execute our half court man-to-man offense much better than we did.”

Cornelius, who was suffering from cramps at the end of the game as well, took over Long’s point guard position and his leadership role, scoring 17 points in 31 minutes of play.

Cornelius’ assist to senior guard Louis Birdsong for a layup with 2:09 left brought the score to 70-65 and lowered the collective heart rate of the Patriot Center crowd.

With 31.2 seconds remaining, Hancock put his mark on the game by making a jumper as the ball moved around in his hands to give the Patriots a 73-66 lead.

“That one jump shot [Hancock] made off the dribble, basically, was a dagger at the end,” said Larranaga. “That was pretty special for a freshman to do that.”

Of the four freshmen that played, Hancock led with 23 minutes, 11 points, four rebounds, and two assists. All of that happened in just his first collegiate game.

“I was a little nervous starting out. I was definitely a little nervous,” said Hancock. “Everyone telling me to calm down made me relax a little bit and get in a groove.”

Mason’s defensive play was a testament to their athleticism. Harassing the ball handler led to six steals, off-the-ball defenders helping on drives resulted in six blocks and full-court pressure forced Liberty into 15 turnovers. The Patriots tried to rattle the Flames with aggressive play.

For a while, it had worked as Mason had a 53-34 lead with 14:21 to play, but the defense began to sag.

“It is the defense, that’s where were running a lot,” said Larranaga. “You know, we’re really putting a lot of pressure on people with our defense, and tonight they just ran right by the pressure, and that’s why they were able to get so many easy buckets.”

The win over Liberty pushes Mason’s home winning streak to 16 games and the Patriots have also won their last five home openers.