Jim Larranaga predicted it in a speech to a group of athletics supporters on Friday, and Vertrail Vaughns proved his coach to be clairvoyant a day later.
The sophomore guard has been in and out of the rotation for the George Mason men’s basketball team this season, but came off the bench to hit three first-half 3-pointers and provide a lift for a Patriots team that fell behind by 12 points early in Saturday’s game against James Madison.
Vaughns' shooting, who finished with 12 points, helped spark a turnaround that would eventually lead to George Mason regaining the lead and taking a 39-38 advantage into halftime en route to an 82-68 win over the Dukes.
The win was the 11th straight for the Patriots (21-5 overall, 13-2 Colonial Athletic Association), which matches a school record and is the second-longest current streak in the nation. It was their 15th win in 16 games against James Madison (18-9. 8-7), and moved them to 13-0 at Patriot Center this season.
It also came a day after Larranaga told a group of Mason supporters, the Green Coat Society, that Vaughns would have a big day against George Mason’s longstanding rivals from Harrisonburg.
I said, ‘Look out for Vertrail Vaughns, and I think everyone was like,‘Really?’,” Larranaga said of his speech to the group at the school’s new Mason Inn. “The guy has been practicing great. Johnny Williams came in and hit shots. Vertrail hit shots. And they got us back in the game.”
George Mason’s usual suspects would take over from there, with junior forward Ryan Pearson scoring 12 of his team-high 15 points in the second half and senior guards Cam Long and Isaiah Tate chipping in with 12 and 10, respectively. The Patriots would extend their lead to as many as 14 in the second half, continually beating James Madison for transition baskets and icing the game by hitting 11 of 12 free throws over the final three minutes of the game.
“We wanted to come out of blocks fast, and we were just too excited at the beginning,” Pearson said. “We didn’t play our game, and just played into James Madison’s hands.”
The Dukes, which took a 21-9 lead to quiet a sellout crowd of 9,840 just over seven minutes into the game, went cold from the field after halftime, shooting just 28 percent (9 for 32) in the second half and 36 percent (23 for 64) for the game. It was the 11th time in 13 home games the Patriots have held an opponent to under 40 percent shooting from the field.
“They’re dynamite,” said James Madison coach Matt Brady. “We didn’t have to play great to have a chance to win this game, but we just couldn’t play dumb. And we played dumb.
“I’m disappointed in a number of things that happened in the second half. We continually stress to our team that we need to get back on defense, and we didn’t do it. We gave up layups in transition, committed charges and took some dumb shots.”
Senior forward Denzel Bowles, the Dukes’ leading scorer averaging 18.2 entering the game, finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but was limited to just two points in the second half. Junior forward Julius Wells and sophomore guard Devon Moore each had 14 to lead James Madison, which has dropped three of their last four and six of nine since a 15-3 start.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are once again one of college basketball’s media darlings five years after their run to the Final Four. Ten of their wins during their current winning streak have come by 14 or more points, and they have won 18 games by double-digit margins.
That streak will get a heavy test with road games at Virginia Commonwealth and Northern Iowa next week, but in the meantime, George Mason’s players and coaches are enjoying the national media attention.
“Media attention comes in many different ways,” Larranaga said. “We like to have the media come in here and talk to our players. We’re proud of our program, and we’re proud of how our players conduct themselves. We never consider it a distraction.”
Added Brady: “To me, right now, they’re the best team in our league. And the best team in our league should be in the Top 25. They’re a team that can be real dangerous in March, and I don’t mean just [at the CAA Tournament] in Richmond.
“There’s not a reason why this team can’t make a lot of noise.”
Notes: Vaughns came within two points of his career high of 14, set in an 80-52 win over UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 4. … Bowles, a transfer from Texas A&M in his second season with James Madison, eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his career with the Dukes. … Virginia Commonwealth dropped a 70-59 decision to Old Dominion earlier Saturday, allowing the Patriots to claim sole possession of first place in the CAA for the first time this season.