Fairfax, V.A. — It might be a new year, but it’s the same ol’ Penn basketball team.
On a snowy Thursday evening, Penn dropped its sixth straight game, falling to George Mason at the Patriot Center, 80-77.
Following a late Christmas present in the form of a pair of missed free throws by Patriots senior Johnny Williams, the Red and Blue (2-9) had a final chance to notch the game up on their final possession.
With 7.7 seconds to go, senior captain Miles Cartwright inbounded the ball to sophomore guard Tony Hicks on a long, cross-court lob.
“It was supposed to be a misdirection — a back screen — to a lob,” Allen said.
Hicks caught the pass, dribbled up top and launched from deep with a hand in his face. But the long three went just wide and bounced off the backboard as time expired.
“I thought it was going in,” Hicks said.
From the field, the Quakers picked up where they left off against Rider, shooting a lights-out 63 percent from the field in the first half.
On the heels of several threes from Cartwright and Hicks, the Red and Blue quickly opened up an 18-8 lead, despite missing sophomores Darien Nelson-Henry (concussion) and Julian Harrell (knee) due to injuries. Combined, the duo of Cartwright and Hicks would go 8-for-15 from range on the night.
“When we were patient, we pretty much got whatever we wanted,” said Allen, who was hounded by George Mason fans all night.
But turnovers and fouls would plague the Red and Blue. Penn lost the ball 11 times in the opening 20 minutes, and the Patriots (7-6) picked up 10 free points from the charity stripe in the early going courtesy of 10 Penn fouls. Despite their stellar shooting, the Quakers entered the half up just a couple, 41-39.
“At least six or seven [turnovers] were just unforced,” Allen said. “It’s not being disciplined, not being sure of ourselves.”
The second half was a complete turnaround. While the Red and Blue only turned the ball over four times, they came out stone cold, missing 12 of their first 16 tries. Penn would shoot just 32.4 percent in the second half.
“We just got to keep playing [and] not get complacent,” said Hicks of the Quakers’ mercurial shooting.
George Mason continued to shoot around 45 percent as they did in the first half and methodically took the lead and built on it.
With just 2:05 left, it seemed all but over for the Quakers, who faced an 11-point deficit. But somehow, they clawed back. Over the final three minutes, the Patriots wouldn’t hit a field goal, and Penn very quietly inched its way back.
With 45 seconds to go, freshman Tony Bagtas got a steal off of a double team and found Hicks wide open up ahead, but Hicks missed a dunk that would’ve brought the game to within just three.
“He tried to make a play, and that’s really all you can ask for,” Allen said. “I don’t think that’s the reason we lost the game.”
It wasn’t. And despite Hicks missing the shot, the play did sent a jolt of energy into what had been a slowly winding down game.
After George Mason senior Bryon Allen hit two free throws — the guard went a perfect 11-for-11 on the night from the line — Hicks, who had a team-high 23 points on the night, redeemed his prior possession by nailing a three from out wide to cut Penn’s deficit to three, setting up for Hicks’ final chance from range.
Despite Williams’ missed free throws, fouls killed the Quakers. The Patriots drained 26 from the line to Penn’s 12. Rebounds also played a major role, especially in the second half.
For the first 20 minutes, Penn took the edge on the glass, 16-9, but lost the overall contest on the boards, 36-30, giving up 13 offensive boards and as many second-chance points.
“You got to hold teams to one shot on every defensive possession, and that’s something we didn’t do in the second half as well,” Allen noted.
Coming into the game, the Quakers had given up an average of 12.7 offensive boards per game — only 7 teams in all of Division-I give up more.
Penn will see another two Atlantic 10 foes in the upcoming weeks, including La Salle this Saturday against the Palestra. The Quakers have proven they can keep up with A-10 competition, but they’ll need to play a full 40 to do it — something that has been markedly missing the past two games.
“Every game this year, we played pretty good basketball,” Hicks said. “But I feel like we still haven’t played our best basketball — not even close.”
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