- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Mason Mania has reached Elite status.

George Mason continued its historic NCAA tournament run, walking over Wichita State 63-55 last night at Verizon Center in a contest not nearly as close as the final score. The Patriots — who had not won a tournament game before this season — reached the Elite Eight and will play for trip to the Final Four tomorrow.

The Patriots won with their trademark defense, pushing the Shockers away from the basket and never allowing them to find an offensive rhythm.

“It’s amazing,” George Mason guard Lamar Butler. “Anything is possible.”

Patriots coach Jim Larranaga said: “These guys made their free throws down the stretch and were able to come away and move into the Elite Eight. That sounds awfully good.”

Folarin Campbell led the 11th-seeded Patriots with 16 points, while guards Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler each scored 14. George Mason forward Will Thomas was an athletic force with 10 points and 10 rebounds. George Mason was 8-for-16 from 3-point range.

Paul Miller had 16 points and eight rebounds for the Shockers, who were rattled by George Mason’s aggressive man-to-man defense. Wichita State shot 31.3 percent and was just 3-for-24 from 3-point range.

George Mason, which upset No. 6 Michigan State and second-seeded and defending national champion North Carolina to reach the Sweet 16, jumped out to a 9-0 lead on Butler’s 3 from the left wing. Campbell followed with a pair from long range, the second an open look from the left side that forced Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon to call a timeout with 17:37 left in the first half.

The brief pause only delayed the onslaught. Campbell’s third 3, which bounced off the front of the rim and in, made it 14-3. The Patriots took a 17-5 lead on Butler’s baseline jumper off an inbounds pass.

Butler’s 3-pointer from the top of the key started the Patriots on an eight-point run to build a 17-point lead. Skinn scored the final five on a 3 and a pair of free throws to make it 32-15. George Mason’s biggest lead was 35-17 on Skinn’s deep 3 with 51 seconds before halftime.

“I don’t know what it is about this gym, but we come out hot,” said Skinn, whose team shellacked American 75-35 at Verizon Center earlier this season in the BB&T; Classic. “When we played American, I think Lamar and I combined for like nine 3s in the first half. Just to see Shaq [Campbell] and Lamar do the same thing this time, there is something about these rims. I like our chances on Sunday.”

The Patriots led 35-19 at halftime with stellar shooting and its suffocating man-to-man defense. The Shockers matched a season low in points in a half and never looked comfortable while shooting 30 percent and making only one of 11 (9.1 percent) 3-pointers.

Meanwhile, George Mason shot 50 percent and was 7-for-11 (63.6 percent) from 3-point range, using its disciplined offense to generate good shots and taking advantage on fastbreaks.

Skinn had 12 points and three assists at the break, while Campbell had 11 points after making all three of his 3-point attempts. Mason was under control throughout the period and finished with eight assists and only two turnovers. Its defense committed only three fouls — none in the first 16 minutes — and Wichita State did not attempt a free throw.

“We wanted to set the tone with our defense,” said Skinn, whose team came into the tournament with the nation’s ninth-best defensive field goal percentage at 38.6 percent. “We were able to do that and take them out of their offense.”

The second half was more of the same. Jai Lewis began the half with a spinning hook to push the margin back to 18. Thomas’ hook gave the Patriots its biggest lead at 39-20 with 17:13 left.

The Shockers appeared ready to rally after Lewis picked up his third foul and left the game with 16:36 left. That sparked a 15-6 run by Wichita State, with Sean Ogirri’s free throws cutting George Mason’s lead to 45-35 with 8:12 left. The Shockers had a chance to get closer, but Ryan Martin missed two free throws.

The Patriots regained control with help from an unlikely source. Thomas had the defense collapse on him and kicked the ball out to Jordan Carter, who made only his fourth 3-pointer of the season to give George Mason a 48-35 lead. Thomas scored in the lane the next time down to put the Patriots up 15.

“Jordan stepped up and hit a huge 3,” Larranaga said. “And I think that got us thinking positively again.”

The Shockers staged one final run, paced by Miller — the MVC player of the year — and cut George Mason’s lead to 58-50 with 1:01 left after a coast-to-coast layup by Ogirri.

However, the Patriots closed the deal by making all six of their free throws in the final minute. After Kyle Wilson’s 3 cut George Mason’s lead to 62-55 with 23 seconds left, Butler made two foul shots.

When it was over, Larranaga pointed to the Patriots fans with a big smile, while Skinn ad-libbed a victory dance at midcourt.

“We have surprised even ourselves,” Campbell said. “We just wanted the win against Michigan State to prove we could compete. For us to beat North Carolina and come back and beat Wichita State, it is just some we couldn’t even think.”

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