- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

George Mason is located in Fairfax, Va., some 30 miles around the Beltway from the University of Maryland. In basketball terms, however, it is light years away. The Terrapins play in packed arenas on national TV in the high-profile ACC. The Patriots play in seldom-filled gyms in the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association and rarely have games televised locally.

But Thursday, the Patriots will make a brief visit to the big-time stage when they play Maryland in a first-round NCAA tournament game in Boise, Idaho. It is no surprise the Terps are a prohibitive favorite. They are ranked 11th in the country and seeded third in the West Region. George Mason, the 14th seed, is being given virtually no chance to pull a shocker and win the first NCAA game in school history.

"We know nobody thinks we can win," said Patriots center George Evans, the three-time player of the year in the CAA. "That's the beauty of college basketball. We believe in ourselves. That's all that matters."

George Mason (18-11) is back in the NCAA for the second time in three seasons under coach Jim Larranaga after winning the CAA title with a bizarre 35-33 victory over UNC Wilmington. The Patriots shot a woeful 29 percent that night and made one of 14 3-pointers but still earned a spot in the tournament.

The ugly win helped build the Patriots' confidence. While Evans is the team's best player, Erik Herring, a street-smart kid from Chicago, gives the team a cocky swagger. The 6-foot-5 slashing senior was named CAA tournament MVP after making the game-winning 3-pointer in the championship game. The explosive scorer smiles widely when asked whether Maryland (21-10) is intimidating.

"I don't think there is one advantage in matchups," said Herring, who will defend All-ACC guard Juan Dixon. "Maryland has a couple great players. George Mason has a couple great players. We're not thinking that they have a couple All-Americans or All-ACC players. There is no doubt in my mind we can win."

The Patriots' top player is Evans, a 30-year-old senior who spent seven years in the Army before coming to college. The 6-7 Gulf War veteran is agile and physical, averaging 18.1 points and 7.8 rebounds and shooting 61 percent from the field.

"I'm sure he's a very good leader," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terps were nearly upset by Evans and Co. last season at Cole Field House. "Anytime you have that age situation, where a player's had a lot more experience than his teammates, it can help them in tough situations."

Evans had 17 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in that game in December 1999. George Mason led with less than two minutes remaining before several miscues cost it a monumental upset.

The Patriots believe that close loss proved they can play with the neighborhood's big boys. George Mason players regularly watch the Terps on television and are quite familiar with the Terps' personnel and playing style.

It's a combination Larranaga has used before to pull off stunning wins. Before arriving at George Mason four years ago, Larranaga coached for 11 seasons at Bowling Green. Larranaga, 51, led that mid-major Ohio program to improbable wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Ohio State.

"This game has some of those same ingredients," said Larranaga, renowned as a defensive innovator. "We are a good team. We are familiar with Maryland because we played them last year. Our players are familiar with them because they play against them in the [summer] Kenner League [at Georgetown]. It's on a neutral floor, and both teams have to travel. There are some elements there that need to be present for a lower seed to knock off a higher seed."

The Patriots didn't fare well in their trip to the NCAA two seasons ago. George Mason, then a 14th-seed in the East Region, lost 72-48 to third-seeded Cincinnati. Herring didn't play after breaking his right foot in the CAA title game, and Evans went scoreless in the physical game, in which he was matched with the Bearcats' Kenyon Martin. Six Patriots remain from that team and feel that experience will only help them.

"We were shell-shocked," said Evans, who has gotten inside help this season from 6-10 Canadian Jesse Young. "We are more prepared this time and know what to expect. We're not as excited just to be there."


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