Believe it or not, Mason succeeds with self-confidence

George Mason's confidence helps lead it to Final Four

Ncaa Tournament

March 27, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

WASHINGTON — Washington-- --With 30.2 seconds left in the second half of a college basketball instant classic, George Mason's Jai Lewis knocked down the first of a pair of crucial free throws, then turned to his left with a scowl and barked something at Connecticut's Denham Brown.

"When I was getting ready to shoot the first one," Lewis recalled yesterday, "he was [saying], `You know you don't deserve to be here,' or whatever. But when I hit the free throw, I said, `Tell me how I don't deserve to be here."'

Five minutes and 30.2 exasperating and exhilarating seconds later - that was in game time, but an eternity in real time - there no longer was a question of who belonged. It was George Mason, the underdog of all underdogs, and Lewis, the senior who graduated from Aberdeen and who looks more like a defensive end than a basketball center, going to the Final Four.

It was not Brown or Connecticut, which before the game had looked more like a future champion than the loser of an epic, unforgettable upset.

Of course, now - with the sights and sounds of the 86-84, overtime stunner in the Washington Regional final at the madhouse of Verizon Center fresh in everybody's minds - words such as "upset," "underdog," "unheralded" and "Cinderella" no longer have the same meaning. Look up "underestimated" in future dictionaries, and you'll find the '06 George Mason team picture.

In myriad ways, the Patriots were disrespected as a team nationally (hence the "Billy Packer" chants by the loonies in the stands afterward), locally (eclipsed in attention and stature by Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington), individually (a roster loaded with nearby players who couldn't get a sniff from the big-name schools) and finally, up close and personal.

The Connecticut players tried to say the right things as yesterday's game approached, but as Brown and Rashad "I Guarantee It" Anderson showed, the Huskies assumed the natural order of the universe eventually would be restored.

As it turns out, this is the natural order. It's time for everyone to stop acting surprised at all of this. After all (to use one example), isn't this what always happens when Will Thomas faces Rudy Gay?

Thomas, though, never thought about the perception that the prep All-American at the elite program had a step up on him. "It's all right," a smiling Thomas said with a shrug in the packed locker room yesterday. "I'm here, he's not. Keep it moving."

Even with more history to make ahead of them, the Mason faithful were exuding vindication. School president Alan Merten, after parading around the court with the trophy (and after getting his snip at the nets), noted that in the previews he'd seen on television, "they spent eight times more time talking about Connecticut than about George Mason. I timed it. Those young men deserve better than to be blown off."

Also getting to climb the ladder was athletic director Tom O'Connor, the onetime basketball coach and AD at Loyola. No, he said, he wasn't going to gloat about zooming past the local powers in the area: "We know who we are," he said.

Instead, he remembered what he always said to Thomas every time he ran into him the past few weeks: "How 'bout that kid from Baltimore!"

"That kid" had 19 points and 12 rebounds, including two huge baskets early in overtime. That kid from Aberdeen had 20 and seven, joining Thomas in withstanding the push by the bigger Huskies and pushing back, to the very end.

All of the Patriots made big plays, and they all crossed the Wilson Bridge to lead the least-known 20,000-student state university in America to the Final Four. Tony Skinn from Takoma Park, staying toe-to-toe with Marcus Williams. Folarin Campbell from Silver Spring, helping in many ways to make sure that neither the late first-half Connecticut sprint nor the shocking overtime-forcing basket would break the Patriots' will.

And Lamar Butler of Fort Washington, creator of the four-point play midway through the second half that regained Mason the lead and spun the momentum back in its favor - and, after winning the regional's Most Outstanding Player award, author of a four-hankie embrace with his father under the basket.

The day before, those five had rattled off the names of their final college choices, and tales of why the big names didn't come calling. They'll surely retell those stories in Indianapolis and talk about how coach Jim Larranaga had told them they were North Carolina's Kryptonite and that their conference initials stood for "Connecticut Assassins Association."

They'll also be talking up their home state, how they're heirs to the legacy of recent Final Four heroes Juan Dixon and Carmelo Anthony.

"It's probably one of the best places to find players," said Lewis, "to go to a George Mason or any college in the country."

If it can work for George Mason, which didn't "deserve" to be there, it can work for anyone.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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