Ryan Pearson celebrates after a hard fought victory over Old Dominion University. Photo by Peter Flint.

Nearly 10,000 students and fans packed the Patriot Center on Saturday afternoon to watch George Mason collide with another top CAA conference opponent, the Old Dominion Monarchs, and continue their run toward an NCAA tournament berth.

The 2011 Wizard of Oz themed homecoming was fitting for the physical match-up because, for the Patriots, there really is no place like home. Mason has yet to lose this season when playing in front of their home crowd and improved their unbeaten mark to 12-0 with a convincing 62-45 victory over the Monarchs.

From the opening tip, the sell-out crowd of 9,840 rocked the arena and cheered Jim Larranaga’s team to victory. On Old Dominion’s first possession of the afternoon, guard Ben Finney launched a three-point attempt that fell short of the rim, provoking chants of “Air ball, air ball” that echoed throughout the Patriot Center.

That same energy ran through the Patriots during the first half as they managed just four points in the first ten minutes of play. Mason’s first eight possessions of the game saw the Patriots miss five consecutive shots and commit three turnovers. But their strong defensive effort kept the game close.

“With the first half of that game, our energy level was just overloaded,” said senior guard Cam Long. “We had steam coming out of our ears, our nose, our eyes, everywhere. Once we understood that all we needed to do was calm down, we were able to get it going.”

Senior guard Isaah Tate canned a three point attempt with just over three minutes remaining in the half, igniting the crowd and handing Mason a 22-19 advantage, their first lead of the afternoon.

“At each of the timeouts,” Larranaga said. “I told the guys, ‘It’s not about who we play or where we play. It’s about how we play. And right now, we’re not playing like we normally do. We need to get back to the business of focusing on being George Mason and playing our way.’ And we really got back to that in the second half.”

With a slim three point lead coming out of the half, senior guard Cam Long saw a weakness in the Monarch defense and splashed home five points less than three minutes into the second half. The crowd, again, erupted and remained a factor in the game throughout the next 17 minutes of play.

“We were able to put together a run,” Long said. “And when you’re able to do that, with a sell-out crowd like that, you just come to the point where you’re almost unstoppable.”

Long, who has played a relentless brand of basketball as of late, finished the evening with 14 points and six rebounds.
Junior forward Ryan Pearson, who was the subject of an article in The Washington Post on Saturday morning, used his size and strength to muscle his way to an 18 point, 11 rebound performance. His unconventional shooting style gave the Monarchs fits all afternoon as he was able come away with one of his most productive games of the season.

“To people looking from the outside in, maybe I was hitting some circus shots,” Pearson said. “But that’s just the way I play. I was just happy that I got some shots to fall.”

To echo Pearson’s power game, junior forward Mike Morrison got himself going early in the game and slammed home a variety of vicious dunk attempts. His 10 point, seven rebound effort was highlighted by an incredible one-handed alley-oop finish from junior guard Andre Cornelius. His eight first half points kept the game within reach for the Patriots as they struggled to find a rhythm on the offensive end.

With the victory, the Patriots moved into the top spot in the conference with just five conference games remaining on the schedule. ESPN Insider Matt Giles has the Patriots ranked as the No. 1 mid-major conference team in the nation and realtimerpi.com lists the Patriots as the No. 29 team in the nation in RPI.

In the midst of a nine game winning streak, the Patriots find themselves in prime position to make a run at the CAA conference tournament and to earn a bid to the 2011 NCAA tournament. And that run will continue against UNC-Wilmington on Tuesday evening.