Larranaga rescues Patriots

FAIRFAX — In a first half that was truly ugly to behold, the play of George Mason senior captain Jon Larranaga was a basketball purist’s dream.

Thanks to a terrific all-around game by Larranaga, the Patriots overcame early shooting woes to pummel Niagara 65-45 for their third straight victory.

Larranaga, son of Mason coach Jim Larranaga, played like he was on the verge of being grounded. He scored just six points but dished out career-high 11 assists and grabbed seven rebounds.

“He’s just seeing the floor really well,” said senior center Jesse Young, who notched a game-high 18 points and nine rebounds. “He’s able to penetrate the defense and find the open man.”

Larranaga also had eight assists in a 79-72 win over Duquesne on Dec. 2 and had led the Patriots (3-3) in assists in every game but one this season.

What he’s done has been out of necessity, said Jim Larranaga.

Raoul Heinen was expected to play the point with Darren Tarver and Lamar Butler playing the wing. However, Tarver suffered a heart attack last summer and will not play again while Butler has been out the entire season with a hip flexor. With Heinen improving his shooting in the offseason, coach Larranaga felt comfortable with his son’s new role.

“He provides what is needed,” Jim Larranaga said. “…Jon is almost like a point guard.”

Mason shot just 35.5 percent in the first half but still managed a 30-21 halftime lead thanks to 25.0 percent shooting from the Purple Eagles (1-4) and the play of Larranaga. Two plays in particular showed the versatility of the Mason forward.

With 3:00 left before halftime, Larranaga grabbed an offensive rebound around three Niagara defenders and heaved a pass out to Heinen, who drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Mason a 24-17 edge. Just before halftime, Larranaga backed down his defender past the free throw line and then tossed a beautiful alley-oop pass to Young, who layed the ball in at the buzzer for a 30-21 lead.

Larranaga recorded three assists on the Patriots’ first three possessions of the second half as Mason built a 37-22 lead. Young scored on a jump hook and an alley-oop layup on passes from Larranaga and Heinen buried a three-pointer for a 15-point lead. Mason, which beat Niagara 86-71 last year, went on to lead by as many as 23 points and was never threatened in the second half.

After switching defenses often in the first half, Mason settled on a 2-3 zone defense in the second half and Niagara didn’t fare much better. 6-8, 250-pound forward James Reaves had 10 points in the first half but didn’t score in the second half.

The zone was in part due to foul trouble. Forward Trent Wurtz was limited to nine minutes in the first half after picking up three fouls early. As a team, Mason committed 22 fouls to Niagara’s 14.

“I think I’ve only started [games] in zones five times in my career and three of them were this week,” Jim Larranaga. “Normally, we’re a pressure, man-to-man [team]. But what do they say? Invention is the mother of necessity.”

For the game, the Niagara shot just 29.1 percent, missed 14 of its 15 three-point attempts and were just 12 of 21 from the free throw line.

Heinen and Davis added 14 points apiece for Mason, which made seven 3-pointers and connected on all 14 of its free throw attempts.

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