WINCHESTER — A shot at scoring a big non-conference victory heading into the holiday break eluded Shenandoah University’s men’s basketball team on Wednesday afternoon.

Hosting Mary Washington in their final contest before Christmas, the Hornets led by as many as 12 points several times in the first half but couldn’t close out the Eagles, who survived a sluggish start and shot nearly 54 percent in the second half on their way to an 80-74 win at the Wilkins Center.

SU had its chances late and led 72-71 with 4:51 to play but hit just one field goal for the remainder of the contest and committed a pair of unseemly turnovers over the final 1:05.

“We have to be better at finishing, just collectively as a team,” said Hornets head coach Adam Walsh, whose team dropped to 3-6 with its fifth loss in the last six games. “I think that’s something our guys are still learning and growing through, if that’s a good way to say it. Part of it’s youth and part of it’s still playing experience, just collective playing experience. It’s not even necessarily that they just don’t know how, it’s just being in the situation at this level. Sure, a lot of them have won games in high school and they’ve been good, but it’s just another level of intensity here.”

The Hornets, who started three freshmen and a sophomore, led 16-4 eight minutes into the game and 31-19 with 4:30 left in the first half before a Mary Washington run made it a 3-point game at halftime.

The Eagles (7-3) took their first lead with 15:30 left in the game and led for most of the second half before Mark Melbourne’s 3-pointer from the corner gave Shenandoah a 72-71 lead with 4:51 left. Mary Washington regained the lead on Da’Shawn Cook’s driving layup with three minutes to play, and the Hornets never seized the advantage again while hitting just one of their last seven shot attempts.

After SU’s Chris Chaney shot in the paint cut the deficit to 75-74, Mary Washington left the door open for SU when Johnny Cronin missed two free throws with 1:23 left but the Hornets committed a costly turnover on their next possession when freshman Jason Tate’s pass sailed out of play.

“We work on stuff like that in practice,” Chaney, who led SU with 20 points and seven rebounds, said of the Hornets’ late-game struggles, “where coach will put up like maybe a minute left on the clock, being down maybe five or four and we try to get back. We do it in practice, so we can do it, but it’s like we turn the ball over, we get discouraged again, we get mad faces and people just start not playing what they can do.”

Trailing 77-74 after a pair of Riley Welch free throws, Shenandoah committed another blunder when junior Alan Dabney couldn’t handle a pass and dropped the ball out of bounds. Greg Rowson’s driving bucket pushed Mary Washington’s lead to 5 points on the next possession and SU’s missed trey on the other end sealed the game.

“I think they came out more aggressive in the second half and we gave in a little bit to that,” Walsh said. “We fought back. It was a 1-point game with not much time left in the game, and we’ve gotta be able to keep our heads and play in those situations. And that’s on our older guys. Our older guys have to be able to temper whatever feelings and emotions are going on in the game. They have to be the ones that lead in that regard and right now they’re not.”

Shenandoah caught Mary Washington moving at “half-speed” in the first half, Eagles head coach Marcus Kahn said, and opened up an early double-figure lead while the Eagles went the first 4:15 of the game without a point.

The Eagles cut Shenandoah’s lead to five midway through the first half before an 11-4 SU run stretched the margin back to 12, a spurt capped by back-to-back 3-pointers from Tate (12 points, six rebounds) and Melbourne (11 points) with 4:30 left before the break.

Mary Washington closed the first half on an 18-7 run before Dabney’s putback at the buzzer sent SU into halftime with a 40-37 lead.

After shooting 40 percent (12-for-30) in the first half, Mary Washington shot 53.8 percent (14-for-26) in the second half and outrebounded Shenandoah 23-13 over the final 20 minutes to finish with a 40-39 edge on the boards.

The Eagles had five players in double-figures: Welch (17 points), Cook (13), Rowson (13), Jacob Williams (12 points, nine rebounds) and Cronin (10 points, six rebounds).

“We started driving the ball instead of just passing around the perimeter,” Kahn said of Mary Washington’s offensive improvement. “We started getting more penetration, which is something we really work on. And honestly, we allowed our defense to work. For us, we use our defense to kind of generate our offense, get us out and going. That’s why we play that zone. We started giving a little bit better effort, we saw the ball go through the hoop and then we got more excited about what we were doing.”

Both teams struggled with turnovers — Mary Washington committed 18 while SU had 16 — and the Eagles held the advantage in points off turnovers, 26-20. Both teams had 10 turnovers in the first half, and the Hornets committed three in a 90-second span during Mary Washington’s run before halftime.

“We had a couple turnovers late that hurt finishing the game but we also had turnovers in the first half that were pointless,” Walsh said, “that we didn’t need to make, that were unforced, where you can look at the first-half turnovers as being more important than the last three minutes.”

Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com