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First-year Mason grows up just in time for Cavs

At the start of the 1999-2000 season, the Virginia men's basketball team was expected to do great things, largely because of the high expectations placed on the four Cavalier first years. But after several games, it became clear to Virginia fans that the renowned rookies might take a while to develop into stars.

By the end of December, many Cavalier fans were ready to write off first-year guard Roger Mason, saying he needed another year to mature as a player. But at about the same time, Mason picked up his play dramatically, becoming an integral player for the Cavaliers.

In the St. John's game Dec. 4, Mason started for the Cavs and played 18 minutes, but scored only one point and registered zero assists, provoking speculation as to why the Silver Spring, Md., native was getting so many minutes.

But against Richmond Dec. 21, Mason began the process of proving himself to the Virginia contingent. With 3:21 to go and the score tied at 59, Mason nailed the first three-pointer of his collegiate career, giving the Cavaliers the lead for good en route to a 69-65 Virginia triumph. Not only did the shot come at the right time for the Cavaliers, but it also came at the right time for Mason, who had missed his first 10 three-point attempts this season.

"He was trying so hard," Virginia Coach Pete Gillen said. "He's a freshman. It's not easy to come in and play big time. He's coming off the bench. He started a few games, but he's not used to coming off the bench. It's all new. It's uncharted territory."

While Mason's game against Richmond began to earn him some credit, it was not until the start of the ACC season that he truly began to show how valuable he could be to the Cavs.

Prior to the ACC season, Mason averaged 6.0 points and 2.5 rebounds a game. He played 17.2 minutes a game and had 13 steals and 12 assists.

But against Duke in Virginia's ACC opener, Mason scored a career-high 22 points on 9-12 shooting from the field, including a perfect 3-3 effort from the three-point range. He grabbed three rebounds and had two steals while playing 28 minutes with no turnovers.

"Coming into the ACC season, I had a full new approach to the new season for me," Mason said. "I really wanted to show what I could do. I've been playing hard this whole time at Virginia, but when ACC time starts, it's a new season and a new level and I just wanted to step it up."

Mason continued his torrid play against Georgia Tech, when he scored 14 points on 3-5 shooting from the floor. Once again, he hit each of the three trifectas he attempted, and he was a perfect 5-5 from the free throw line.

That kind of performance against Duke and Georgia Tech earned him ACC Rookie of the Week honors and provided an inkling of Mason's true potential.

In the five ACC games Virginia has played thus far, Mason is averaging 10.8 points per game and is shooting 44.4 percent (16-36) from the field. He has made eight of 14 three-point attempts (57.1 percent) and is 14 for 15 (93.3 percent) from the free throw line. He has 12 rebounds, eight assists and seven steals to his credit while committing six turnovers in 112 minutes of playing time. Mason also has been playing stellar defense against ACC guards this season, most recently against North Carolina's Joseph Forte, a former high school rival of Mason's.

"I've always been a good defensive player, and I just want to feed off of that sometimes," Mason said. "When other things aren't going, my defense is always going to be there ... This type of play, a lot of it is fast break ... I think it's to my advantage because I'm quick on defense."

Gillen agrees.

"I think [Mason's] playing excellent" defense, he said. "He was guarding Forte for a while - he did a great job against Forte. He went nose to nose with him and played him great. He's a big part of our team ... I wouldn't trade him for anybody. He's a great two-guard and he has a great future and a great chance of starting some more games this year."