This had to be old hat for Erik Copes, just another game --- right?
Copes drained a 13-footer with 0.5 seconds left to lift George Mason to a 60-58 defeat of William & Mary on Saturday at the Patriot Center. But he'd hit a game-winner before, presumably.
"Never in my life," Copes confessed.
"Glad you told me that before," coach Paul Hewitt said.
Hewitt had only one piece of information that mattered, and it was that he and the Patriots collected another victory. They're 17-11 overall and 10-6 in a sputtering CAA, and things haven't come easy or consistent all season.
Even this winner wasn't entirely smooth. Never mind that Mason was down 50-37 with 11 minutes to go. The final play didn't entirely unfold in a predictable way.
The plan was to get the ball into guard Bryon Allen's hands and have both Copes and Jonathan Arledge set fake ball screens. That much worked. But out of a scrum came a pass to Copes, who was standing near the foul line when he got the ball with about two seconds to go.
"Obviously, he was a little bit too much open right there, but if we wanted anyone to take it, we'd love to see Copes take a jump shot as opposed to a lot of other weapons they had out there," Tribe coach Tony Shaver said. "I'm not sure it was all bad defense, really."
It's tough to argue. But Allen, who was hoping to get to the rim, knew he'd made a winning play when he passed to the sophomore.
"He was very wide open," Allen said. "He practices that shot every day in practice. I knew he was going to make that shot."
And so an every-day occurrence led to a once-in-a-lifetime (to date) moment for Copes --- a game-winning shot in the final second.
"We call it zone shooting, making a shot around the CAA [logo] area," Copes said. "We always try to knock down a CAA jump shot."
He did just that Saturday, making a CAA jump shot to help Mason's lot in life in the CAA standings.
Five other observations from Mason's victory:
1. Anali Okoloji resurfaced at the perfect time for Mason.
It was exactly a month ago when Okoloji, a starter over the season's first 18 games, went to the bench.
He hadn't played more than 13 minutes since then. He's managed only 12 combined minutes over the last three games, including a DNP.
So, naturally, he played seven critical minutes in the second half, particularly at the defensive end.
"He had a great practice yesterday, so it was just a hunch play," Hewitt said. "I said 'Let's give him a shot.' He had a great practice and was sharp and looked quick again. We went with it and it paid off."
Okoloji provided a bigger body to harass the Tribe on the perimeter, particularly (at times) Marcus Thornton. The sophomore star had only five points in the final 13:59 --- which almost perfectly coincided with Okoloji's insertion into the lineup.
"His rebounding and his physical presence changed the game when it looked like we were pretty much dead in the water," Hewitt said.
2. Patrick Holloway was a bit of a savior as well.
The freshman scored 15 points, tied for his second best day of the season.
In truth, he was the only guy who could improve Mason's spacing issues all day.
"He kept us in the game when we were struggling," Hewitt said. "Anali's defense gave us a spark, but [other than] Patrick, we weren't scoring. Sherrod had a tough shooting day. there was a stretch in the second half where we had some shots around the rim we didn't finish. He stepped up big there."
What was particularly interesting was how much time Holloway and Okoloji spent on the floor together. Holloway is a superb outside shooter but not a well-developed defensive player. Okoloji might be Mason's best perimeter defender but is rarely a threat on offense.
It seemed Hewitt was willing to gamble that one player's strength would outweigh the other's weakness --- and in the second half it worked.
3. Mason finally snapped a three-game home skid.
The Patriots haven't seemed particularly great, and that's because they aren't. But despite some awful games (here's looking at you, 18-point loss to Georgia State), Mason hasn't found itself in a freefall this year.
The Patriots' longest skid of the year is two games. But it did have a puzzling three-game losing streak at home entering Saturday.
"As coaches, you learn how to deal with the losses," Hewitt said. "But what's been particularly disappointing for me is the type of support we get, and for us not to reward it --- especially our students. But they're hanging with us. We still have a chance to get one more at home."
That'll be an opportunity to complete a sweep of Towson on Tuesday and also provide Mason a chance to win three straight for the first time since Jan. 15-23.
And in case anyone forgot, the Patriots will need to win three in a row next month to claim the CAA tournament.
"We know we're a team that's capable of making it back to the NCAA tournament," Allen said.
4. William & Mary had a chance to win despite its offense checking out for 10 minutes.
When a team gives up a 19-1 run over a stretch of nearly nine minutes, it seems safe to assume the offense was malfunctioning.
It was in some ways for William & Mary, which missed five of six free throws in that period and a bunch of open shots.
It also got to the foul line on four different possessions and found ways to get those open 3-pointers.
Then the Tribe recovered to tie it at 58 on Tim Rusthoven's open layup with 14.8 seconds to go.
"I've been over here for 10 years now and I've seen a lot of teams crumble in that situation and our guys didn't crumble today," Shaver said. "That's really important to me and really important for them right now. Maybe a month ago we wouldn't have made the stand we did. We didn't get a lot of breaks down the stretch, we didn't make a lot of free throws, we didn't get a lot of whistles, but we stood our ground and tied the game down the stretch."
5. Mason is a step closer to avoiding Northeastern until the CAA title game.
The Patriots moved into third place in the CAA at 10-6, behind Delaware (10-5) and ahead of James Madison (10-7).
Mason, which swept James Madison, will be assured of no worse than the No. 3 seed if it beats Towson and Delaware knocks off both UNC Wilmington and Hofstra. That would ensure the Patriots could do no worse than a two-way tie for third with James Madison.
The No. 2 seed is still possible if Mason wins out (including Saturday's trip to Delaware) and Delaware loses to either (or both) UNC Wilmington or Hofstra. The Blue Hens beat conference leader Northeastern, which would serve as a tiebreaker in case they and Mason end up splitting the season series and tying for second.
--- Patrick Stevens