Image Courtesy Fordham Athletics
Following the first meeting between Fordham and George Mason this season, in which the Rams came out on top 50-47 in a physical game, it was clear that first year head coaches Kyle Neptune and Kim English would pull no punches should they meet in the conference tournament. In a Day 2 matchup seemingly spun by the fates of college basketball, Fordham and Mason did in fact meet in a second round matchup as the 8 and 9 seeds respectively.
From tipoff, it looked like the Rams and the Patriots were picking up right where they left off. Scoring was sparse at first as both teams locked in defensively. For Fordham, Abdou Tsimbila had a massive early block on Josh Oduro, establishing Fordham’s paint presence early. On the outside, both Fordham’s Kyle Rose and Mason’s Xavier Johnson were vigilant around the perimeter, as Johnson was able to pick off Quisenberry for the first steal of the game.
For the first three minutes of the game, no team could get past the other, with Josh Oduro scoring the first bucket via a powerful drive to the post. Despite not being able to connect on a lot of their shots, Fordham was able to prevent Mason from making a run with hard defense, as well as good ball movement that would draw out offensive possessions. Antrell Charlton, who Coach Neptune described as taking on the role of the team’s “on-floor coach,” was very vocal on the floor for the Rams right from tip. His effort on and off the ball was crucial for Fordham early on, as he grabbed the first bucket for the Rams with a free throw line jump shot.
“I just feel like that’s what is needed to win, especially [with] the changes that we have with injuries and things,” Charlton said of his leadership. “I feel like I got to be that guy that is out there and solid and knowing what is going on.”
As the first half progressed, rebounding became very contentious, as both teams struggled to hit anything from three. It was clear that defensively, Josh Oduro and Chuba Ohams were ready to lock each other down, as both players were the frequent victims of double teams. For Fordham, this allowed guys like Abdou Tsimbila to have a bit more room to work. On several plays in the first half, Tsimbila would grab up to two consecutive offensive boards before either laying the ball in or drawing a whistle to go to the line. Tsimbila would enter halftime with 6 offensive boards.
As the first half wound down, both teams’ began to trade buckets as their shooters got hot. For every big shot there was a big response. As Pat Kelly hit a three to go up 11-8, D’Shawn Schwartz hit one of his own to tie it. Ohams pushed his way through to go up 13-11, and Devon Cooper followed it up with a three pointer on the other end. So the game would go as both teams tried and failed to get an advantage in transition. With a buzzer beater three from Xavier Johnson, Mason would enter the break up 22-19.
While Fordham would carry some of the defensive intensity through halftime, the second half saw the Rams fail to hit their first nine shots of the game. In this same timespan, Mason pounced, going 4-9 and increasing their lead from 3 to 11. Mason’s post defense was fierce, with the Oduro/Ohams matchup once again the marquee sight. As Ohams drove into the paint in transition and tried to finish the euro step layup, Oduro was right their behind him for the stuff.
Once Pat Kelly broke Fordham’s scoring lull with a three to make the game 30-22, Fordham began to settle in. Slowing down the pace slightly, and moving the ball well, Fordham looked like they had regained their senses. According to Chuba Ohams, Coach Neptune gave them such much-needed, and possibly some explicit, words in the huddle.
“I won’t tell you everything he said,” Ohams explained with a laugh. “He pretty much told us that we were playing too comfortable. We weren’t playing like we wanted it.”
Ohams further explained that Coach Neptune’s emphasis on the dire nature of this game was a major motivator.
“That could have been our last game,” Ohams said. “At the end of the day, we want to look each other in the eyes and say that we played hard and we played together.”
If any player felt the urgency of their situation, it was Zach Riley. Checking into the game for the first time in the second half, Riley was the centerpiece of a huge Fordham run. In two possessions, Riley cut down Mason’s 6-point lead, drawing an and-1 on a layup, making the free throw, and then drawing three free throws on the next possession. Riley would hit all three to tie the game at 37, and Ohams would give Fordham their first lead since 13-11 with a hook shot to make it 39-37.
As the clock wound down, the last 7 minutes of the game reflected the middle part of the first half, as both teams traded big blows in the post. Fouling became a huge factor late, as both teams entered the bonus around the two-minute mark. Along with a few missed layups, three missed free throws in the second half would turn out to be the killing blow for the Patriots. As Chuba Ohams sank two at the line, Fordham closed out a 55-49 victory. Ohams would lead all scorers with 20 points and 16 rebounds.
Moving into the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007, Coach Neptune talked about what this win meant for his team, who was picked 14th in this year’s preseason poll.
“We set our own expectations in the preseason,” Neptune said. “We’re a brand new bunch, a lot of new guys, a lot of new coaches. Our AD is new. We didn’t look at anything anyone else said about us.”
As for Mason, while not reluctant to express his frustrations for how this season ended, Patriots head coach Kim English explained his team’s mindset in terms of getting better for next season.
“You can talk about close games all you want,” English explained. “You are what your record says you are, and in this first season, we’re 14-16. It was earned, but it’s something that our guys who will be returning will feel, need to feel, need to feel every single bit of it–of the anguish, the embarrassment, the everything. Our staff, me, everyone.”
Tomorrow, Fordham will take on top-seed Davidson in the quarterfinals at noon.