WILLIAMSBURG — Competing against quality opposition isn't the issue for William and Mary. But until the Tribe finishes plays at both ends of the court, particularly in the final minutes, there will be more anguish such as Saturday.
George Mason and Sherrod Wright pulled away in the final three minutes for a 73-66 win in a taut, entertaining affair in front of an atypically energized crowd at Kaplan Arena.
"I don't quite know what to say," Tribe coach Tony Shaver began his postgame remarks. "A heartbreaking loss, that's for sure, for our kids. I think they're playing with a passion and an effort necessary to win these type of ball games, and we're not quite pulling them out right now."
Execution late in the game cost William and Mary (7-6, 1-1 CAA) the chance for a signature win against one of the league's best teams.
"We're definitely playing some good basketball, but we'd like to finish some of those games against good teams, like today," said Tribe guard Brandon Britt, who scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half. "We played against Purdue, we were right there. I just think it's simple execution is going to get it. We've just got to keep working hard at it."
After Britt's 3-pointer from the right corner tied the game at 61, Mason converted on its next three possessions.
Johnny Williams drew Kyle Gaillard's fifth foul, after a crisp feed from Corey Edwards, and completed a three-point play to give the Patriots the lead for good.
A Wright steal led to him making 1 of 2 free throws for a 65-61 lead. His driving layup down the middle after curling off of a screen resulted in another three-point play and a 68-61 lead with 1:54 remaining.
The Patriots (8-6, 1-1 CAA) closed out the game at the foul line, making five of eight in the final minute.
"We definitely didn't get stops, but late, we (missed) free throws, a layup here and there," Britt said. "It's just little plays here and there. If we want to beat good teams, we've got to execute down the stretch."
Mason's Wright led all scorers with a career-high 28 points. The 6-foot-4 junior did a little of everything, scoring inside and outside, defending and rebounding, as well as setting up teammates.
"He's really starting to play like a big-time player," Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. "The jump that he's made is on the defensive end. He's always been a good scorer. He understands how to get open, he's coming off screens better. But defensively over the last four or five ball games is probably the best I've seen him play defense his whole career, since I've been with him, at least. He's been able to translate that into easy points."
Marcus Thornton and Tim Rusthoven scored 19 apiece for the Tribe, and Rusthoven pulled down 11 rebounds, battling against Mason's frontline platoon. But W&M had only 10 points from the rest of the lineup, and Mason's bench outscored the Tribe's 22-2.
"I felt early in the year we were a very balanced basketball team," Shaver said. "Right now, we're not. We're leaning too heavily on three players.
"We've got some good players not playing well. That's part of it. We've got to get some better production from some guys starting right now, and better production from the bench. The individuals are not that important, but those guys are capable of playing better. Really, to be a great team, they're going to have to play better. They really are."
Mason also held a 37-25 rebound advantage and converted 14 offensive boards into 15 second-chance points. That's partly a result of the absence of W&M 6-8 reserve Tom Schalk, sidelined with mononucleosis.
One fewer big body means that Gaillard is forced to play longer stretches at power forward, essentially out of position. Bigger opponents with deeper front lines are able to lean on Rusthoven and Gaillard more frequently.
Yet even with their shortcomings, the Tribe has had chances against better teams. Saturday's game was there for the taking.
"I think we're good," Shaver said. "But I think we're not where we need to be. I just told our team, and I mean it sincerely, I don't think there's anybody in this league we can't beat. But I don't think there's anybody in this league that can't beat us. So it's going to come down to the day-to-day effort and the day-to-day execution."