By George, they did it

Local-driven Mason tops No. 1 UConn to get to Indy

George Mason 86 Connecticut 84

Ncaa Tournament

March 27, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- You may never see an elephant fly or hear Billy Packer admit he was wrong, but you can catch George Mason University in the Final Four.

Two weeks after holding their breath on Selection Sunday, the Patriots became perhaps the most improbable regional champion in the 67-year history of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Relying on Baltimore's Will Thomas, Aberdeen's Jai Lewis and perimeter players from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the 11th seed in the Washington Regional put away Connecticut, 86-84, in overtime, in front of a partisan, albeit disbelieving, sellout crowd at Verizon Center.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's Sports section, an article about George Mason's NCAA basketball victory over the University of Connecticut incorrectly referred to the high school of George Mason's Will Thomas. Thomas attended Mount St. Joseph.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Connecticut's Denham Brown scored at the regulation buzzer to force overtime, where he missed a three-pointer at the end that would have reversed the outcome. George Mason, meanwhile, coolly made five of six field-goal attempts in overtime.

The Huskies were the top seed and the people's choice to win their third national championship in eight years. Ten days ago, George Mason had never won an NCAA game, but it put away Michigan State, North Carolina and the Huskies, three of the past six champions.

The Final Four has never seen a team seeded lower than George Mason. LSU was also an 11th seed in 1986, but those Tigers had a past that included the likes of Pete Maravich. George Mason, located in Fairfax, Va., didn't have a team four decades ago, and began playing in Division I in 1978.

The Patriots were the first at-large selection from the Colonial Athletic Association since 1986, and Packer, the CBS analyst, was critical of the respect given mid-major conferences. Before tipoff, coach Jim Larranaga's message to his team played on its background.

"He told us," senior center Lewis said, "that we're from the CAA, and that stands for the Connecticut Assassins Association."

Six weeks ago, these guys struggled against a Towson team that didn't have Gary Neal. Yesterday, they overcame one that included a slew of future NBA players, including Rudy Gay, the All-America sophomore out of Archbishop Spalding High who had 20 points in what may have been his last college game.

"Eight and 0, eight and 0," said Thomas, a Mount St. Joseph product, of his having never lost a high school or college game to Gay.

The best game of the 2001-02 season might have been Maryland's win over the Huskies in a regional final in Syracuse, N.Y. Yesterday's was just as well-played, as the undersized Patriots out-rebounded an intimidating front line and made a clutch six of seven threes in the second half.

"They've got the size, but we've got big hearts," said Thomas, who played all but one minute.

After hugging his teammates and realizing what they all had done, the sophomore forward fell to all fours and then rolled into the fetal position.

"I'm exhausted, emotionally and physically," he said. "That took a lot out of me. This is beyond my dreams."

Thomas had 19 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Lewis scored 20, got Mount Airy's Josh Boone in foul trouble and gave all of the Connecticut big men fits, as George Mason (27-7) countered every punch from the nation's No. 2 team.

Connecticut (30-4) led 6-0 and 18-11, struggled against a zone, then scored 15 points on its last five possessions of the first half to grab a 43-31 lead. Less than a second before the break, however, Oxon Hill's Lamar Butler got the Patriots momentum with a three-point play.

Lewis and Thomas combined to make six of nine shots in the first half, when their teammates were a combined 5-for-20. The little guys made up for it in the second, when Butler, voted the regional's Most Outstanding Player, took three threes and hit them all.

"Their big guys were good," Gay said, "and it was hard to help on them, because the guards can shoot."

A three from Folarin Campbell, a sophomore wing from Silver Spring, completed an 11-2 run that got the Patriots a tie at 49. A Campbell long-range shot got them their first lead with 11:09 left, and he completed a four-point play from the left corner on the Patriots' next possession.

The lead changed hands six times in a little over two minutes, but the Huskies never led after a deft Lewis spin move made it 64-63 with 5:55 left. The Patriots took a two-possession lead into the final minute, but Connecticut forced overtime for the second time in less than 41 hours.

George Mason, which did not substitute over the game's last 15 minutes, was a shaky 5-for-11 at the line in the last six. When Tony Skinn, a 6-1 senior guard from Takoma Park, missed in the bonus with 5.5 seconds left and the Patriots up by two, Connecticut had life.

Lewis injured his right ankle the first time he handled the ball in the second half, and the wide-body who weighs close to 300 pounds couldn't deny the baseline to Brown, whose up-and-under drive just before the buzzer bounced on the rim three times before making it 74-74.

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