George Mason wins Cayman Classic with 68-64 victory over NMSU

George MasonGeorge Mason capped a grueling five-game, eight-day stretch with a tournament championship, claiming the Cayman Islands Classic crown with a 68-64 victory over New Mexico State Wednesday night inside John Gray Gymnasium.

Mason (8-1) erased a 12-point halftime deficit with an exceptional second half in which the Patriots limited the Aggies to 34.4 percent and shot a sizzling 55.6 percent (15-27) on the offensive end.

The title marks Mason’s first regular season tournament championship since 1993-94 and the Green & Gold are 8-1 on the year for the first time since 1983-84.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” head coach Dave Paulsen said. “This has been a great event. Our guys really showed a ton of toughness and no more so than tonight. We said at the beginning of the game that this would be decided by toughness. I thought New Mexico State was tougher than us in the first half, but I thought our guys answered every challenge in the second half. Across the board, this is a tremendous win.”

Against an Aggies team which has played in four of the past five NCAA Tournaments, Mason showed great mettle and poise while mounting its second half comeback. After turning it over 10 times in the first stanza, Mason committed just three miscues in the second half.

What’s more, the Patriots were +4 (35-31) on the glass against an Aggies team which entered the game top-50 in rebounding margin. In all, Mason held a +41 rebounding edge over the Cayman Classic’s three games.

Sophomore point guard Jamal Hartwell II starred for the Patriots with a team-high 17 points – including 13 in the deciding second half – and made three critical 3-pointers.

In one of the most efficient performances you’ll ever see, senior Justin Kier made the most of his 16 minutes on the floor, going a perfect 6-6 from the floor to finish with 13 points. That included a big-time drive and finish that helped close out the Aggies late.

Redshirt-junior AJ Wilson chipped in 12 points, tied his career-high with 14 rebounds and blocked four shots in 35 minutes on the floor. He was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after tallying 12.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per contest.

In addition, sophomore Jordan Miller was a part of the Cayman Classic All-Tournament Team (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg).

The Aggies jumped out to a 14-4 lead, but Mason rallied with a 7-2 spurt to cut it to 16-11 at the 9:34 mark of the opening stanza. The Patriots cut it to four (21-17) on an acrobatic lay-in from Kier, but an 11-0 run from the Aggies opened up 15-point lead for NMSU (32-17) with 3:58 to go in the half. The Aggies led by 12 (35-23) at the break.

Mason rocketed out of the second half with five quick points. Hartwell II nailed a 3-pointer, then the Patriots got a steal and Javon Greene converted a lay-in to make it 35-28. New Mexico State got it back to 10 (38-28) and led 49-39 at the 12:52 mark.

At that point, Mason locked in on defense and began to mount a comeback. Back-to-back buckets from Wilson and Greene cut it to six (49-43), then a pair of Hartwell II free throws made it 49-45 with 10:37 left.

Another bucket from Wilson cut it to three (52-49) and Mason took the lead after a big 3-pointer from Hartwell at 6:48 to make it 54-52. That basket capped a 7-0 run for the Green & Gold.

After a see saw back and forth few minutes and with NMSU holding a 59-56 edge (4:20 left), Hartwell II nailed a triple on the break after an Aggie turnover. Then, back-to-back buckets from Miller and Kier and two Hartwell II free throws capped a 10-0 Mason run which gave the Patriots a seven point lead (66-59) with 13 seconds left.

In all, Mason allowed just three NMSU points over the final four minutes of action.

The Patriots now enjoy a six-day competitive hiatus before returning to EagleBank Arena for a three-game homestand. The series opens with a 7 p.m. contest on Tuesday (Dec. 3) against Jacksonville State.

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