Before arriving in UD Arena Saturday night to play the University of Dayton, George Mason University was free throw-challenged, one of the worst in the country, but the Colonials made six straight in the final six seconds to hang a 74-69 defeat on the Flyers, dropping UD two games behind VCU with two to play in the Atlantic 10.
Dayton, OH. — If one wants to find where George Mason’s basketball team ranks nationally in free-throw shooting, call up the NCAA statistics.
Scroll down. Keep scrolling. Down, down, down. Keep going. Almost to the end? That’s where they will be found, near the bottom, 348th of 362 Division I basketball schools.
And yet, there they were Saturday night in UD Arena, standing at the foul line like William Tell. The apples didn’t have a chance.
The Colonials buried six straight free throws in the final 10 seconds to assure themselves of a monumental and masterful upset of the Dayton Flyers, 74-69.
At the other end, the Flyers led, 51-45 with nine minutes left and made 7 of 14 free throws, enabling George Mason to creep back and put the Flyers to sleep.
UD’s Beast by the Basket, DaRon Holmes II, scored a career-best 34 points, but he was a flop at the foul line at gut-check time.
With the score tied, 66-66, and 90 seconds to play, he went to the foul-line for six shots and made only two.
The defeat, only UD’s second in the Arena this season against 13 wins, was a neck-snapper. It dropped the Flyers (19-10, 11-5) two games behind first-place VCU with two to play and pretty much let all the air out of the tires as far as winning the Atlantic 10 regular-season championship.
UD Coach Anthony Grant is pounding it into the heads of his battered and beaten Flyers that the season is not junked.
“The only goal out of reach right now is being regular-season champs,” he said. “Everything else for us is still in play. We have to make sure the guys understand that.
That would be winning the Atlantic 10 tournament and making the NCAA tournament. That won’t be possible if the Flyers play the way they played, or didn’t play, Saturday night.
It was quickly as plain as the white goatee on Grant’s chin that something was amiss as soon as the ball went up in the air to start the game.
The Flyers were not engaged, not full of the vim and vinegar they usually display, especially on defense. UD is proud of its defensive prowess, but on this night George Mason pretty much did what it wanted offensively.
The Flyers lolly-gagged through the first half and the normally spirited Flyer Faithful busied themselves opening popcorn boxes, sipping soft drinks and reading the program.
Despite their lack of intensity and sense of urgency, the Flyers led, 19-16 with nine minutes left in the half, only to watch the Colonials close the half on a 17-8 run for a 33-28 lead.
“I thought we didn’t start the game the way we would have liked,” said Grant. “We had some breakdowns on our defensive end late in the half.”
The second half was back-and-forth, forth-and-back. The score was tied 14 times and the lead changed hands six times. George Mason’s biggest run was seven and UD’s was six.
And the Flyers finally built that 51-45 lead with nine minutes left, only to see it evaporate like puddles on a hot Arizona street.
The culprit? Poor defense.
“We’ve been really good defensively,” said Grant. “If you look at our numbers, we’re in the top 35 defensively in the country. We didn’t perform like that tonight. We needed to have that defense show up tonight and unfortunately it didn’t.
“We weren’t able to get the stops the last eight or nine minutes of the game,” he added. “They had a lot of success offensively where they converted too high of a percentage of their baskets or got to the free throw line and did a great job of stepping to the line and knocking them down.”
Holmes was 10 for 12 from the line with two minutes left and no doubt was leg-weary and carried heavy arms. That’s when he made only two of six.
“We have to do a better job, especially on the defensive end,” said Holmes. “And we have to hit our free throws, but tonight it started with the defense, what we’re known for, but we let them get some easies.”
Of his career-best 34 points, Holmes said, “It’s not about the points. I wanted to win that game. My whole goal is just to help the team win and I have to do a better job at the free throw line for the team.”
The team didn’t much help him, though. Holmes was the only Flyer in double figures. Toumani Camara had nine and Koby Brea had nine.
“We struggled with free throws (16 for 27), especially down the stretch,” said Grant. “And we were in position to make some plays and didn’t. And they did.”
At 66-66, point guard Malichi Smith stole the ball and drove for the basket. It was blocked with 58 seconds left. George Mason’s DeVon Cooper motored down the left side of the lane for a layup and a 68-66 lead with 56 seconds left.
UD’s Smith flung his small body into the trees under the basket ande missed, but Holmes was fouled on the rebound. With a chance to tie it, he missed both free throws with 23 seconds remaining.
After a wild scramble and scrum on the floor, Smith was called for a foul and Cooper missed the front end of the one-and-one, leaving it at 68-66 with 20 seconds left.
Smith bolted quickly down the floor, again into the trees. He tried to drop a pass to Holmes but Holmes kicked it away and Smith was whistled for a foul. Ronald Polite III hit two free throws, giving his team a 70-66 lead with 10 seconds left.
Smith buried a long three with five seconds left, cutting the margin to one, 70-69, but Polite hit two more free throws. . .he led George Mason with 22 points and was 8 for 8 from the foul line. The freebies provided the Colonials with a 72-69 lead. . .a three-pointer in front of the Flyers with 04.3 seconds left.
Holmes tried a long-distance throw-in pass and showed he is not Joe Burrow. His pass sailed out of bounds. To close it out, Devin Dinkins hit two free throws.
When a kid scored 34 points, it is cruel to point a finger at him for missing game-changing free throws in the dying seconds. Without Holmes the Flyers would have been expired and put away long before they were.
“That’s part of the game. . .he didn’t try to miss those free throws, he tried to make them,” said Grant.