BOULDER, Colo. – The George Mason women's basketball team stepped off the floor of the Coors Events Center on a Rocky Mountain High after one of its biggest wins in recent memory.
The Patriots rallied from a deep first-quarter hole and stormed back for an 87-75 victory over defending Missouri Valley Conference champ Drake in the first game of the Rocky Mountain Hoops Classic on Friday at the Coors Events Center.
Mason (6-1) matches its best start in six years and has won six straight games for just the second time in the last 24 years. The Patriots, who trailed by 18 points in the opening period, advance to the championship game of the Rocky Mountain Hoops Classic where they'll play host Colorado (4-1) at 4:30 p.m. (EST) on Saturday.
"I just can't even put into words how proud I am of this team," Mason coach Nyla Milleson
said. "Obviously we've only been here for four years but I would have to say it is one of the biggest wins in Mason women's basketball history. Particularly, getting down like we did the first quarter. It was about to turn into an old-fashioned whooping. Just one possession at a time, finally got some stops. Rebounding is one of the things we do. We finally got on the boards. I've coached a long time and I'm probably as proud of a team's effort as maybe I've ever been."
Three players scored at least 20 points, led by graduate transfer Natalie Butler
's career-high 26 points. The 6-foot-5 center was 10-for-13 from the field and grabbed 11 rebounds for her sixth straight double-double. Sophomore Jacy Bolton
and freshman Nicole Cardano-Hillary each scored 21 points. Cardano-Hillary also dished out a career-high six assists and Bolton snagged seven rebounds and a personal-best four steals.
The win comes against a Bulldogs team that was picked to win the Missouri Valley Conference again and finished the regular season last year with an impressive RPI of 26. Drake reached the NCAA Tournament after winning both the Missouri Valley regular-season and tournament titles. They posted the first undefeated regular season in MVC history at 18-0 and won a school and conference-record 22 straight wins.
Playing in the high altitude at 5,345 feet above sea level, Mason got behind early. The Patriots trailed by as many as 18 points in the first quarter as Drake (2-3) sunk six 3-pointers in the opening period. But Mason responded with 74 points over the last 31 minutes. They shot 50 percent (17-of-34) in the second and third quarters and never trailed in the second half.
Drake jumped out to a 31-13 lead with 56 seconds left in the first quarter thanks to six 3-pointers and 61.1 percent shooting in the opening period. The Patriots, however, punched back with a similar dose of hot shooting.
Cardano-Hillary drained a 3-pointer and Tayler Dodson
hit a layup to close out the first quarter. It was the start of what would turn into a 25-4 run. The Patriots rattled off 10 straight points to end the spurt. Making that run all the more impressive was that Mason was able to keep the flurry going even after inside presence Butler went out with 6:49 left in the second quarter after picking up her second foul and did not return until after halftime.
Freshman Camarie Gatling
scored consecutive layups on back-to-back offensive rebounds to push Mason in front 38-35 for its first lead of the game with 4:21 left.
Drake regained the lead momentarily with 41 seconds left but Bolton put Mason in front for good with a layup after grabbing an offensive rebound with 12 seconds remaining. The Patriots went into halftime with a 41-40 lead and held onto it the rest of the way.
They came out of the half picking up where they left off, making six of their first eight shots (75 percent). They raced out to a 61-50 lead with 3:29 to go in the third quarter and led by as many as 12 in the fourth quarter. Drake pulled within five points early in the fourth quarter and then got back within seven later in the period. Both times, Cardano-Hillary answered with a 3-pointer to stop the Bulldogs' momentum.
Mason outrebounded Drake 46-35 and scored 18 second-chance points off 14 offensive rebounds. In addition to Butler's 11 rebounds, Dodson had 10 rebounds, marking the third time this season she has reached double figures on the boards. Gatling also added eight points and four rebounds off the bench.