FALLS CHURCH -- Central’s boys basketball team had a chance to take a major step toward its Bull Run District title defense on Tuesday night. Instead, George Mason, likely the biggest threat to a repeat performance for the Falcons, roughed up the district’s defending regular-season and tournament champs.
Powered by electric scoring nights from seniors Max Ashton and Hollman Smith, the Mustangs went off in the second half and rolled to a 62-46 win in what was a key midseason district matchup for both squads.
Central led 24-21 at halftime but saw Mason -- a team it beat three times last season by a total of 7 points -- match its first-half scoring output in the third period alone and outscore the Falcons 41-22 over the final two quarters. Ashton, who erupted for 17 points in the second half, finished with 25 points while Smith added 20.
“Smith and Ashton really did a number on us in the second half,” said Falcons head coach Jeff Whittle, whose team dropped to 8-4 (1-1 Bull Run) and saw its three-game winning streak come to an end.
Ashton, a career 1,000-point scorer, hit five 3-pointers in the win, including three in the second half, to pace a nine-trey night for the Mustangs (6-6, 2-0). His third 3-pointer of the night at the start of the second half got things rolling toward a one-sided third period, and Ashton and Smith each scored 8 points in the fourth quarter as Mason never allowed its lead to dip below 9 points.
“The bottom line, 15’s a stud,” Falcons senior Sam Shifflett said of Ashton. “We didn't play our best game but like I said, 15’s a player and he’s gonna score regardless of how good of defense you play. That kid, he didn't score 1,000 points in three years for nothing. He’s obviously a player but we could’ve done a couple things better defensively. We gave them a couple open looks, but they just made shots and we didn't.”
The Falcons, who shot just 39 percent in the loss, closed the first half with a mini-run of their own to emerge from a back-and-forth first half with a slim lead.
After shooting just 29 percent in the first half, Mason (6-6) connected on 3-pointers on each of its first two possessions, setting the tone for a second half in which they would hit 54 percent of their shots.
Central managed to weather the barrage early in the third quarter, cutting the Mustangs’ lead to 31-30 when Kelan Hoover hit a turnaround shot on the low block with 4:52 left in the quarter. Smith answered with a driving bucket in the lane, starting an 11-0 Mason run that didn’t come to an end until Falcons point guard Jared Patton’s jumper connected with 22 seconds left in the frame.
“I think that killed us,” Patton, who led Central with 16 points and eight rebounds, said of the decisive run, “and we just couldn’t fight back.”
George Mason’s outburst coincided with the exit of Central’s 6-foot-4 center Dominic Strother, who committed his fourth foul midway through the third period and sat out the rest of the quarter.
With Strother (14 points, nine rebounds) in the game, Central dominated the glass -- in addition to holding the Mustangs to less than 30 percent from the floor in the first half, the Falcons outrebounded Mason 22-9 in the first two periods -- but Mason enjoyed a 10-4 advantage on the boards in the third and held Central to just 8 points in the frame, a total Strother matched in the first 2:18 of the fourth quarter upon his return.
Strother and senior guard T.J. Williams, one of the first players off the bench for Central who spent a lot of time guarding Ashton, both fouled out in the fourth period.
“It hurt,” Whittle said of Strother’s foul trouble. “We were trying to focus on getting the ball inside but they were doing a good job of playing hard-nosed defense. Some of their defense caused us some problems and then a couple times we had some just careless mistakes, but losing (Strother), just with his length and size, down that stretch (in the third period) hurt us a little bit because that’s when they made a nice little run. A couple times they just got loose, we let a couple shooters get loose and they hit the big shots in key moments.”
Central’s offense looked out of sorts while trying to play catch-up. The Falcons turned the ball over 18 times (compared to Mason’s five turnovers) in the loss, including eight times in the second half and three times in a four-possession span while trailing by 9 points with less than three minutes to play.
Central also made only 1 of 16 3-point attempts, and only five Falcons scored in the loss.
“I was hoping we could make one (run) right back when they got up nine or 10, but we just never could make a run,” Whittle said. “We never got anything going, really. I mean offensively we couldn’t get any good, clean, easy looks. We couldn’t really get out in transition.”
While Tuesday’s result was a disappointing one for a team coming off an appearance in the Class 2 state semifinals last season, it was just the Falcons’ second district game of the season and Shifflett said “we can’t wait to see them at our place” on Jan. 25.
“The thing is we have the ability to control our own destiny,” Whittle said. “It’s early. We’re still 1-1 in the district. (We have to) keep our head up and (it’s) fortunate we get to have them come to us next time. We can control our own destiny, we’ve just gotta continue to work harder in practice.”