It looked familiar. Very familiar.
George Mason built a big lead. George Mason let it disappear. George Mason found itself in a toss-up.
In some ways, it is the story of the season for the Patriots. This time, in the College Basketball Invitational quarterfinals, Mason survived.
The 88-84 overtime defeat of Houston on Monday extended the Patriots' season for at least one more game, a Wednesday date at the Patriot Center against a yet-to-be-named opponent.
"I'm glad this time, we came out with the win," forward Jonathan Arledge said. "Same thing happened against Charleston; we had a lead and let them come back."
The truth is, it happened more than once. There was a 20-point lead squandered against Drexel in late January. Delaware rallied from 10 down in the final nine minutes in the regular-season finale. Most famously, Mason led 28-4 and permitted Northeastern to erase that deficit --- in about seven minutes --- in the CAA semifinals.
Maybe the underlying cause was different in each of those losses. But the same team was on the floor, and so the questions surface about just what ails the Patriots.
That's a reality, and an irksome one for coach Paul Hewitt.
"I think sometimes people talk in generalities," Hewitt said. "They say 'You guys blew a lead' and this and that as opposed to really dissecting it and saying 'What happened?' Was it turnovers? Was it rebounding? Was it not guarding off the dribble? This gives us a real good chance to examine those things --- not that we haven't talked about them in the past, but young players being that they're young, they don't hear things exactly right."
Nonetheless, even Hewitt acknowledged this reminded him of how the Patriots (20-14) let that Drexel game slip away nearly two months ago. This time around, Mason scored the first 17 points. It led 28-9.
Soon enough, the lead was down to two. Mason pushed its advantage back to 10 in the second half, then saw the Cougars (20-13) inch ahead 75-74 with 1:24 left for its only lead of the game.
But there would be an Arledge dunk and a Sherrod Wright free throw to help nudge things into overtime. Once there, Wright handed the Patriots a lead with a 3-pointer and then finished off Houston with two free throws with a second to go.
With that, Mason closed out the sort of game it couldn't wrap up for much of the season.
"This is nothing but a positive for us because we see some of the things we need to work on, especially moving forward going into the A-10," Hewitt said, referencing the far larger news of the day if Mason's shift out of the CAA. "We also see some bright spots because we have some guys that can make some plays."
One of those is Wright, who scored a career-high 29 points thanks in part to a determination to drive to the basket rather than become jump-shot happy. Another is Arledge (11 points), who has reached double figures in nine of 14 games since moving into the starting lineup.
The truth is, this third-tier postseason tournament can benefit Mason, which has no seniors in its rotation. Another home game is coming, and perhaps even a chance at playing in the CBI's quirky best-of-3 championship series.
It isn't what Mason dreamed about back in November. But it does provide the opportunity for growth, just as Monday's victory demonstrated the capacity for the Patriots to move beyond the disappointments from oh-so-similar games in recent months.
"We didn't have the best season we wanted, but it's a chance for us to come out here and win this tournament and go into next season with a fresh start," Wright said.
--- Patrick Stevens