RICHMOND — Less than a minute remained in a game long decided, but that didn't stop Briante Weber on Thursday. The VCU guard and defensive menace secured a loose ball in the backcourt with a sliding dive, called timeout and jumped to his feet to exhort the sellout crowd.
That's how you lead the nation in steals and embody a defense-first approach. That's how you and your teammates gradually, but inevitably, wear out an opponent.
Making its Atlantic 10 Conference debut, George Mason acquitted itself well for much of the evening against VCU's full-court pressure. But led by Weber's five steals and relentless motor, the Rams pulled away for a 71-57 victory.
"Second half we just let loose and played VCU basketball," Weber said, "and it took a toll on them."
Mason was unfazed early, making nine of its first 16 shots and committing three scant turnovers in the opening 10 minutes. The Patriots passed through and over the Rams' full-court pressure — Marko Gujanicic's 80-foot inbounds hit Patrick Holloway in stride for a layup and would have impressed Peyton Manning.
"Let's just be aggressive and see what happens," Mason coach Paul Hewitt said of his approach.
But when Gujanicic went deep with another inbounds pass later in the first half, VCU's Juvonte Redic deflected the ball and Terrance Shannon intercepted, finding Melvin Johnson on the right wing for a 3-pointer.
And that's the theory behind the Rams' style. You may torch them once, twice, even three times. But coach Shaka Smart believes fervently that in most cases, his wave of defenders will exact their price.
Sure enough, over the final 30 minutes, the Patriots (7-8) committed 16 turnovers and shot 30.4 percent. They shot 24.1 percent after halftime.
The first sign of Mason cracking came early in the second half, when four consecutive turnovers fueled a 9-0 binge that gave the Rams (13-3) a 46-36 lead. But the Patriots countered nicely with a Holloway 3-pointer and Bryon Allen layup.
Again, Weber's defense — he averages a Division I-best 3.9 steals a game — turned the tide. From behind, he swiped the ball from Sherrod Wright, igniting a fast break that Treveon Graham (game-high 15 points, six offensive rebounds) converted with a layup for a 58-48 edge.
"I was really proud of how our guys defended in the second half," Smart said. "I thought that was the difference in the game."
Thursday was the 50th clash between the Rams and Patriots, who competed as Colonial Athletic Association rivals for 17 years, until VCU's departure to the Atlantic 10 last season. That Mason would follow to the more rugged A-10 was logical and bordered on inevitable.
There were seasons in which the Colonial could approach, match or exceed the A-10's quality and depth. Case in point 2006, when Mason received an at-large NCAA bid and reached the Final Four.
But overall, the A-10 is superior, rarely more so than this season.
Even at this early hour, it's safe to say the CAA will send only its tournament champion to the NCAA field. Indeed, No. 80 Drexel, which dropped its conference opener Wednesday at William and Mary, is the lone CAA team among the top 100 on the Rating Percentage Index used by the NCAA selection committee and replicated at ESPN.com.
Conversely, entering Thursday, seven of the A-10's 13 teams were among the top 100, paced by No. 5 Massachusetts and followed by No. 21 George Washington, No. 41 Saint Louis, No. 42 Dayton, No. 70 VCU, No. 76 Richmond and No. 92 Saint Joseph's.
The A-10 isn't as deep as the ACC, but UMass, GW, Dayton and VCU are a combined 8-2 versus the ACC. Other notable A-10 non-conference conquests include New Mexico, Brigham Young, Creighton, Gonzaga and California.
No doubt, losing Temple, Xavier, Charlotte and Butler, the latter after a one-night stand, to conference realignment dinged the Newport News-based A-10, which last season saw VCU, Temple, Butler, Saint Louis and LaSalle advance in the NCAA tournament. But adding Mason and its pedigree cushioned the fall, as has the collective performance thus far of the A-10's remaining programs.
The Patriots will not challenge in the league this season. Weber and the Rams will.
"That was something else," Smart said of Weber's late diving steal. "There's not a lot of guys who would do that at that point in the game. … He just goes after it."