Mason calls out critics with win

The Kickoff

March 27, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

WASHINGTON -- In what appeared to be the final seconds of George Mason's shocking Elite Eight upset of No. 1 seed Connecticut, some clever GMU student popped up in the stands at Verizon Center with one of those makeshift signs that say it all.

It had a picture of a cellular phone and a message for everyone who thought that the mid-major conferences were over-represented in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament:

"Billy Packer, can you hear us now?"

Turned out the game wasn't quite over. Connecticut staged one more last-second comeback to push the maddest game of March into overtime, but the message remained loud and clear, and the pride of the Colonial Athletic Association is headed to Indianapolis to represent all the mid-major bubble teams who have ever been angled out of the tournament by the sixth-place team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"We just knew that if we got the chance, we were going to make some noise in the tournament," said Patriots guard Lamar Butler, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Washington Regional.

Yes, George Mason, Billy Packer can hear you now, and so can all of the rest of us who didn't believe you could knock down the No. 6 seed (Michigan State), much less the No. 3 seed (North Carolina) or the team (UConn) that many of us thought would be cutting down the net next Monday night.

Patriots coach Jim Larranaga has done a great job of keeping his team loose throughout the tournament, and he had one more motivational trick up his sleeve yesterday.

"I told them right before the game that we're from a secret organization called the CAA - the Connecticut Assassins Association," Larranaga said. "They busted up. Then, every time I said CAA in the huddle, they knew what I was talking about."

The post-game celebration was borderline surreal, and any post-game news conference featuring the erudite Larranaga figures to leave you scratching your head at least once.

I mean, how many college basketball coaches sum up the biggest victory of their careers by quoting three-time presidential candidate and orator William Jennings Bryan?

"William Jennings Bryan said: `Destiny is not a matter of chance ... it's a matter of choice,'" Larranaga said. "`It is not something that is given to you. ... It's something you earn.'"

The same apparently goes for the Final Four.

Just wondering how many people were afflicted yesterday with BBAS - Bracket-Based Ambivalence Syndrome. It's an emotional disorder recently identified by a leading sports psychology researcher (that would be me) that is suffered by NCAA basketball fans who find themselves rooting for a team like George Mason when they've got the opposing team in their March Madness pool.

Of course, professional ethics prevent me from taking part in any form of sports gambling, but I had UConn winning it all in my hypothetical bracket and found myself pulling for the Patriots even though a Huskies loss could cost me hundreds of hypothetical dollars.

It was worth it. The final minutes of yesterday's stunner represented the most electric sports finish that I have been present for since George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to regain the heavyweight championship at 46 years of age.

When I say electric, I'm talking about the kind of finish that raises the hair on the back of your neck. I've been to plenty of sporting events that were just as exciting and significant, but the David-and-Goliath quality of the matchup and the way it went down to the wire twice made it a truly special experience.

There is no rest for the emotionally drained Colonial Athletic Association officials who head to Madison Square Garden today with Old Dominion for tomorrow night's semifinal round of the National Invitation Tournament.

A few University of Washington fans remained to root against the team that kept their fifth-seeded Huskies out of the Elite Eight, and they obviously weren't ready to let go of the notion that they got the wrong end of too many questionable officials calls in Friday night's overtime loss.

Several of them held up a banner that read: "We Got Seahawked ... Go Mason!"

The reference, of course, was to the feeling in the Pacific Northwest that the Seattle Seahawks fell victim to some shaky officiating in the Super Bowl.

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