BALTIMORE -- Thinking about his stagnant offense while driving home from Tuesday's practice, Paul Hewitt decided steering his starting lineup into a new direction had merit. In a game against the CAA's top rebounding team, George Mason would use a three-guard approach from the opening tip for the first time this season.
The new look set the strategic tone on the road at Towson and fueled the Patriots' highest scoring conference game of the season as George Mason downed the Tigers for the 20th straight time, 77-67 on Wednesday.
Rafriel Guthrie scored 18 points for the Tigers (10-11, 5-3), who have lost two straight.
The aforementioned change returned Bryon Allen to the Patriots (12-7, 5-2) starting lineup after 10 games in a reserve role while forward Anali Okoloji came off the bench for the first time this season. Allen responded by making his first five goal attempts including two spectacular layups, and finishing with a season-high 16 points and six assists. George Mason, which entered averaging 65.1 points and 11.8 assists, finished with 20 assists on 26 made baskets.
The adjustment benefited the offense while George Mason's defense remained sturdy. Hewitt acknowledged some trepidation in tinkering with that side of the court, but the Patriots held Towson to 37.5 percent shooting. The Tigers did not help their cause by firing up 21 attempts from beyond the arc, making only four.
"I think for us, we played hard, but didn't play very intelligently especially on the defensive end of the floor and we took way too many 3's," Towson coach Pat Skerry said. "We're not an offensive juggernaut so we have to be great offensively and clearly we weren't."
Jerrelle Benimon, the nation's leader in double-doubles, had 16 points, eight rebounds and four blocks, but forced shots against the Patriots aggressive defense, finishing 5 of 15 from the field.
"[Jerrelle] hurt us on both ends of the floor. You want to be a prime time guy, you have to play every night,"Skerry said. "He was bad...he took some horrific, horrific shots."
Sherrod Wright made 14 of 17 free throws and paced the Patriots with 24 points before the sparse crowd inside the Towson Center. On most nights, the junior guard is George Mason's only double-digit scorer. Against the Tigers, Wright had point-producing help. Freshman Marko Gujanicic sank the Patriots only two 3-pointers and had 12 points plus nine rebounds.
"The lineup change was made to try to facilitate more offense," said Hewitt following the Patriots fifth win in six games. "Tried it practice two days ago full-time. It looked good. 77 points is the result."
The tradeoff put the Patriots in a vulnerable position on the glass. The Tigers did indeed control the boards, finishing with a staggering 24 offensive boards and a 44-34 rebounding advantage. Bilal Dixon had 14 including seven off the offensive glass.
Ultimately, the open court and passing benefits outweighed being outsized. George Mason scored the only eight fast break points in the game and its bevy of layups led to a 34-20 points in the paint edge.
Taking the media through his thought process, Hewitt said, "It's what I battled with, especially coming into this game. I said to the staff on the way over, 'you know it's kind of counter-intuitive. We're taking one of our best perimeter rebounders out of the game in a game we need to rebound the ball. We just said 'let's go, let's see what happens.'"
The Patriots also frustrated Benimon, who entered the game leading the nation in total rebounds. The 6-foot-8 wide body former Georgetown transfer finished 5 of 9 from the free throw line and had four of the Tigers' 16 turnovers.
"I think for the first time in a while he let his frustration get to him," Skerry said of Benimon.
The Patriots led by as many as 11 points in the first half and shot 50 percent from the field for a 41-34 at halftime. Though Towson remained close on the scoreboard, George Mason maintained control and closed the game with an 8-2 run. Wright and Allen each scored four points over the final 1:25, sinking all six of their combined free throws.
Hewitt took his lineup shot and George Mason leapfrogged Towson in the standings, meaning the top two teams in the CAA will meet Sunday in Boston when the Patriots visit Northeastern.
The victory in this specific game stands out because of how it shapes the conference race. How the strategic change shapes the Patriots going forward does as well.
"For us right now it's about trying to figure out what's our best lineup," Hewitt said. "I think we're a team that's supposed to [score] 75-85 points. I said that at the beginning of the year. It's probably my fault - I should have made this change maybe earlier, put more ball handling and passing out on the floor.
"Now we'll see. It might have been a fluke. I don't think so. We'll see what happens on Sunday."
After three straight at home, Towson hits the road for two games, starting with Saturday's tilt at William & Mary.