Rams fall to Mustangs at home

Strasburg's Noah St. Clair drives through the lane as George Mason's Robert Tartt defends during third quarter boys basketball action Friday night in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – George Mason boys basketball coach Chris Capannola said the Mustangs’ goal on a game-by-game basis is to “frustrate” opposing offenses. The Mustangs did that against Strasburg on Friday night.

George Mason forced the Rams into 21 turnovers and hit some key free throws down the stretch to beat Strasburg, 56-46, and tighten its grip on the top spot in Conference 35 and the Bull Run District.

“They hit some free throws at the end, but defensively they did a good job on us in the half court,” Rams head coach Matt Hiserman said. “I think not practicing hurts us a little bit and trying to prepare for them going to run and jump you a little bit in the half court, we knew that was probably going to happen. We haven’t practiced since last Thursday. It’s really hard to prepare for and do it a game-like speed.”

Despite the turnovers, Strasburg (14-4, 8-4 Bull Run) found itself right in the game late in the fourth period.

The Mustangs (16-1, 13-0) led 42-34 after back-to-back layups by D’Montae Noble one minute into the final period, but the Rams rallied back to cut George Mason’s lead to two points. Senior Noah St. Clair started Strasburg’s 6-0 run when Trevin Howard found him open in the paint for a layup and freshman Mekhi Hendricks cut the Mustangs’ lead to 42-40 with a 3-pointer from the corner with 5:10 left.

Strasburg's Ryan Smoot makes a move to the basket during a Jan. 30 home game against George Mason. The Rams face Prince Edward County tonight in the Group 2A East semifinals with a trip to next week's state tournament on the line. Game time is 7 p.m. at Orange County High School in Orange.. Rich Cooley/Daily

Both teams traded two free throws apiece over the next minute, and Strasburg nearly took a one-point lead when junior Tyler Brill’s open 3-point attempt from the corner rattled in and out with 3:30 remaining. It was Brill’s only miss from beyond the arc in five attempts on Friday night.

“We got lucky,” Capannola said. “The 3 that [Brill] almost hit, in and out, it might’ve been a different game if they went up one.”

Strasburg suffered through a three-minute scoring drought in the fourth period, but still only trailed 48-44 with 54 seconds left after Tyler Fincham connected on a floater in the lane. George Mason junior forward Robert Tartt made 8 of 10 free throws over the final 51 seconds to put the game out of reach.

“I thought they did a really good job defensively on us,” said Hiserman, whose team shot 37.8 percent (14 for 37) from the field in the loss. “We didn’t find the open guy enough when they would help out when we would penetrate a little bit. We would turn and see one guy, but not make the extra pivot and see the next guy across that was open.”

Both teams locked in a defensive struggle early, as Strasburg held a 7-5 lead after the first period. The Rams opened up a 12-5 lead early in the second period after Brill’s third trey of the first half, but turned the ball over on five of six possessions later in the frame.

Strasburg's Trevin Howard makes an off-balance pass as George Mason's Devin Thomas defends during fourth quarter boys basketball action Friday night in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

The Mustangs took advantage, tying the game at 19-all on Devin Thomas’ 3 and taking a 21-19 lead into halftime following a stickback by 6-foot-6 junior Douglas Bossart with 45 seconds left in the first half.

“I think the youth of our guards hurt us some in that turnover situation stuff in the first half,” Hiserman said. “We were trying to go too fast and they were running up and doubling us and we were getting caught there around half court or on the sideline with nowhere to go.”

George Mason struggled offensively in the win, as the Mustangs shot only 31.6 percent (18 for 57) from the field and didn’t shoot well from the free-throw line before Tartt’s success late in the fourth period.

Cappanola was disappointed with the number of high-percentage shots that the Mustangs missed on Friday night but also credited the Rams’ defense with making things difficult for George Mason’s offense.

“They’re the best fundamental defensive team, I think, in the league. They always have been,” Capannola said. “You’re not going to get wide-open shots all the time. … They can frustrate you. It’s tough to get by them. And when you have shots against these guys you have to make them.

Strasburg's Tyler Fincham prepares to make a pass after driving the baseline while George Mason's Dustin Green defends during first quarter boys basketball action Friday night in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We missed enough layups and free throws ourselves, it should’ve been a more comfortable margin but it’s tough to win here and they’re a good team.”

Elliot Mercado led George Mason with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Tartt added 13 points and 10 boards. The Mustangs held a 36-29 rebounding advantage.

Brill led Strasburg with 14 points, while senior Ryan Smoot finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds. Howard and St. Clair had eight points apiece for the Rams.

Friday’s loss keeps Strasburg behind Luray for the second-place spot in the Conference 35 race and the Rams face another critical conference/district game today on the road at Clarke County for a 4:30 tip-off.

“Overall we’ve got to really look at some of the positive things we did tonight and move on with it because we’ve got Clarke in less than 24 hours,” Hiserman said. “That’s going to be another big one and every game becomes bigger. We’ve proved that we can play with them and stay with them, we’re just going to have to keep building on what we did tonight.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com

Strasburg boys basketball coach Matt Hiserman chats with his team during a time out Friday night against George Mason. Rich Cooley/Daily