WASHINGTON -- It came as a surprise to almost everyone who looked at the final stat sheet: George Mason had out-rebounded the stronger, taller and more athletic No. 1-seeded Connecticut team.
"We won that?' George Mason coach Jim Larranaga asked, his eyebrows raised, after his team upset UConn, 86-84, in overtime for the program's first trip to the Final Four. "Nice job, guys."
The Patriots, led by former local standouts Jai Lewis of Aberdeen and Will Thomas of Baltimore, out-rebounded UConn, 37-34, and it was their game plan from the start. But George Mason also won the inside game with its hook shots and heart. A flurry of three-point shots opened up possibilities in the post, and that was how George Mason, a No. 11 seed, upset UConn yesterday afternoon in the Verizon Center.
"We got beat inside the post, which we haven't really all year, and we got beat good in the post." said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "And not to blame any of our kids but we could not get points or rebounds or particularly blocked shots on kids."
Connecticut came into the game averaging 8.8 blocked shots per game, and was the first school in NCAA history to lead the country in blocked shots for four straight seasons. UConn finished with seven blocks yesterday. The Huskies were also out-rebounding opponents by an average of 9.9.
Thomas, a 6-foot-7 forward who was matched up against Connecticut's 6-10 Josh Boone, was the only player in the game to reach double digits in the rebounds category, as he finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Boone, who was averaging 7.1 rebounds, pulled down just four yesterday and had one block.
"We knew they go to the offensive boards and we just wanted to box out and get the rebounds." Thomas said. "I think I just wanted the basketball more than them when the shot went out."
George Mason also out rebounded Michigan State, 38-23, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It was the same strategy the coaching staff had stressed all season: Everybody get a body on your man.
"If we get a body on them, and when the shot comes up, they're going to come over your back, no matter how big they are." said assistant coach James Johnson, whom Larranaga has credited throughout the tournament for his team's strong defense.
"Our guys did an exceptional job of getting inside and getting a body on their guy. They got a few offensive boards, but for the most part, we did a good job of keeping them off the glass."
Lewis consistently backed his 275-pound frame under the basket and scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Together, Thomas and Lewis outscored the Huskies" big men - Boone and center Hilton Armstrong - 39-14.
Connecticut forward Rudy Gay, 6-9, who led the Huskies with 20 points, said the difference inside was a matter of heart, not height.
"They played tough and they have a lot of heart." he said. That's all that really matters when you're playing a game like this."
"Playing against taller guys, you just have to play with heart, show more heart than the guy who is defending you." he said. "All year we've been playing against 6-9, 6-10, 6-11. You just have to use your moves and know how to get them up in the air and go up underneath them and get in position where you know that you can score."
George Mason was also scoring, though, from the perimeter, and that made Calhoun reluctant to double-down in the post. The Patriots scored nine three-pointers, and guard Lamar Butler of Oxon Hill made four of six.
"We cannot send down the small man, so every one of those threes - forget the number just for a moment - were like daggers that allowed both Lewis and Thomas to do what they want." Calhoun said. "But in life, as I told the kids, it doesn't always go the way you planned. They don't measure heart by inches, they don't measure courage, they don't measure basketball instinct and intelligence.
"They spaced us and kept us away from doubling the bigs, and when we did double the bigs, we paid a price." he said. "I give them all the credit in the world."