It's a long way until March Madness, but the College of Charleston's road to a possible at-large berth in the NCAA tournament got a lot tougher Friday night.
In a battle of mid-major powers, George Mason senior forward Ryan Pearson led the Patriots (9-4) to an 84-76 win over the Cougars before a disappointed sellout crowd of 5,008 at TD Arena. The Cougars, who now almost assuredly must win the Southern Conference tournament to get to the NCAAs, had no answer for the 6-6 Pearson, who scored a career-high 35 points and collected 14 rebounds.
The loss ended a 15-game home winning streak for the Cougars, who last lost at TD Arena to Clemson in December 2010.
George Mason also improved to 1-3 overall against the College of Charleston. The Cougars won by two points two seasons ago at George Mason in an ESPN BracketBusters game. Going into the game, the College of Charleston (10-3) was ranked No. 13 in the College- Insider.com Mid-Major Top 25, while George Mason (9-4), which received an at-large bid to last year's NCAA tournament, was No. 18.
The Patriots overcame a sluggish offensivestart in which the College of Charleston jumped to an 8-0 lead. But the Patriots eventually led by as many as 11 points in the first half and were up by 11 with 6 1/2 minutes remaining in the game. The Cougars finally got their offense clicking and closed the gap to 74-72 with 3:09 to play. But George Mason would not be denied and pulled away for the victory.
"It was a tough night for us," College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins said. "George Mason did a great job. They stymied us with their on-ball defense. You have to give the big kid (Pearson) credit. He put on a show."
Pearson hit 15 of 25 field goal attempts, including 1 of 3 from 3-point distance. He also was perfect (4 for 4) from the free-throw line, and in addition to his 14 rebounds, added four assists, two steals and a blocked shot. His 35 points were the third highest total by an individual at TD Arena. Former Cougar Andrew Goudelock scored 39 in an NIT win over Dayton last season, while former Wofford player Noah Dahlman scored 36 against the Cougars in the 2008-09 season.
"Ryan can do this most nights. He is a gifted scorer," said first-year coach Paul Hewitt, who took over at George Mason after being fired at Georgia Tech. Hewitt succeeded Cremins as coach at Georgia Tech.
"We've been playing really well in practice. "Tonight we played our best game of the season. Hopefully this type of win reinforces what we've been doing in practice."
Pearson gave credit to his teammates for giving him the ball in the right places to score and said their ability to knock down open shots made it easier for him. George Mason hit 31 of 60 from the field, including 8 of 16 3-pointers.
Charleston had five players score in double figures, led by Antwaine Wiggins with 19, 15 of which came in the second half. Wiggins also had nine rebounds before fouling out. Wiedeman scored 15 points while Adjehi Baru added 12.
The Cougars shot 43.3 percent from the floor (26 of 60) and were only 5 of 21 from the 3-point line. They did manage to hit 19 of 28 free throws and had a 38-35 rebounding edge.
"College of Charleston has a great basketball team," Pearson said. "Coming in, we knew it would be tough. As basketball players, you live for this type of game."
College of Charleston sophomore Trent Wiedeman said it was frustrating playing against Pearson.
"He played a great game. He's a great player and he was scoring in every way," Wiedeman said.
With the loss, Cremins said it's time for the Cougars to focus on the Southern Conference. Charleston travels to Wofford Thursday and plays at Furman next Saturday.
"When we cut it to two points I thought we had a chance," Cremins said. "Truthfully, we didn't deserve to win. We've been lucky. We have a great record, but there have been about five games that could have gone either way. Tonight we didn't have luck with us.
"It was a great atmosphere, a great crowd and a really good opponent. I'm glad it wasn't a conference game. I'm disappointed in the way they took us out of our offense. We looked sloppy, careless. You have to be sharp against a good team like that. But it's one game. Right now, truthfully, my thoughts are on Wofford and Furman. I feel bad we did not play better. But life goes on."