- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — The George Mason band blared as the cheerleaders danced and shook their pompoms. Thousands cheered as the Patriots took the court inside the vast RCA Dome for their final preparations for the Final Four.

Sophomore guard Folarin Campbell led the Patriots onto the floor yesterday, and senior guard Lamar Butler began the layup drill as George Mason’s historic and previously unimaginable journey through the NCAA tournament continued.

“It felt like any other practice, other than there were 20,000 fans out there,” George Mason forward Will Thomas said.

The Patriots — who had never won an NCAA tournament game before this run and surprised many by making the tournament at all — will try to pull off another upset when they play Florida for the right to advance to Monday night’s national championship game.

“It’s been an absolutely magic carpet ride,” Patriots coach Jim Larranaga said. “On the Wednesday just before we left for the first round [in Dayton, Ohio,] to play Michigan Sate, I brought the team together at the halfcourt circle as we do at the end of every practice. I told them, ‘I’m going to have more fun than any other coach in the NCAA tournament, and I want you guys to have more fun than any other team.’”

The Patriots have followed their coach’s instructions. After being selected as the 11th seed in the Washington, D.C., Region and knocking off Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and top-seed Connecticut, George Mason is now one of four out of 334 Division I programs still playing.

“It is really sinking in,” Campbell said. “My heart was pounding when I stepped out there.”

It is fitting that the Final Four is in Indianapolis, just across town from Hinkle Fieldhouse — the fabled gym where tiny Milan High School defied the odds and much bigger schools to win the 1954 Indiana state championship. The movie “Hoosiers” was based on Milan’s story.

Larranaga had hoped to practice at Hinkle earlier this week, but it was being used for other purposes. The coach has downplayed similarities between Milan and George Mason, although he invited Bobby Plump — who made the winning shot in Milan’s win — to speak to the Patriots.

George Mason tied LSU in 1986 as the lowest seed to reach the Final Four and is perhaps the most startling participant in the event’s history.

“They wondered maybe why they weren’t recruited as highly, but once they saw what George Mason had to offer as a school and as a basketball program, they came here with the hopes of living a dream,” Larranaga said. “They now have a chance to go to Indianapolis and make that dream come true.”

The Patriots’ next challenge comes against the Gators, the SEC champions, who were seeded third in the Minneapolis Region, where they defeated No.1 Villanova 75-62 in the title game. Florida (31-6) has star Joakim Noah and five players averaging in double figures.

“They are bigger than us. They are probably more athletic than us. They are probably deeper than us,” Larranaga said. “They are certainly taller than us. They have a bigger name than us. But what we have is a lot of confidence in ourselves and what we do, and we are going to just try to play the best we can.”

The Patriots have done that so far and have received outstanding play from their frontcourt of two 6-foot-7 players, Jai Lewis and Thomas. The duo either has taken games over or clogged the middle to free deft outside shooters Tony Skinn, Butler and Campbell.

George Mason plans to ride its low-post pair as it matches up with the Gators’ 6-foot-11 do-it-all forward/center Noah and 6-9 forward Al Horford.

“Size means nothing to us,” said Campbell, who has 280-pound Lewis on his side. “Their big guys are long and lean. Our big men are a lot [thicker]. Hopefully we can pound them all game and wear them down to the point where they are frustrated. We have gone against teams way bigger than us. That doesn’t bother us.”

Florida is making its first Final Four appearance since 2000, when it fell in the national championship game to favored Michigan State. This time, the Gators are facing the underdog.

“I kind of like the role now,” said Corey Brewer, a Gators swingman. “Everybody is talking about us being the villain, they’re Cinderella. It’s time to kiss Cinderella and take her home.”

Meanwhile, the Patriots have embraced their Cinderella moniker because it has worked so far.

“We’ll stick to it and run with it,” Skinn said.

But George Mason’s players still want more.

“We are still underdogs, and people are saying the Cinderella story is over,” Thomas said. “It’s not. We only have to win two more games to win the national championship. It’s not like we haven’t won two games in a row before.”

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