- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — The thousands of George Mason University students and other fans who dug deep into their pockets, missed classes and did whatever else necessary to see their team play in the NCAA basketball tournament left the game last night with few regrets and some unforgettable memories.

“It’s pretty cool to have come this far,” freshman Joe Plummer said as he sat alone in the upper-deck bleachers after the Patriots’ 73-58 loss to the Florida Gators. “It’s [sad] that we had to lose, but we still overcame a lot.”

Indeed, the 11th-seeded Patriots had to beat college basketball powerhouses Michigan State, the University of North Carolina and the University of Connecticut just to reach the Final Four.

“To think we’ve made it so far is really amazing,” said Megan Ransone, an 18-year-old freshman. “We don’t have anything to be upset about, because we accomplished a lot.”

Patriot fans started getting a sense that their Cinderella season might end without a national title with about 15 minutes remaining and the Patriots trailing by 15 points, their biggest deficit in the tournament.

A few minutes later, sophomore Rico Plumb sensed a comeback and screamed: “Thirteen points is nothing.”

However, Florida made a bigger run, and all the green-and-yellow face paint in the world could not hide the bewildered and sullen faces on some of the Patriots fans.

“They weren’t getting any rebounds, and they weren’t making any shots,” said Derek Garman, a 20-year-old sophomore. “They were not playing like they usually do.”

George Mason fans’ hopes were revived with less than five minutes to go when the Patriots finally hit a couple of 3-point shots to cut the lead to nine. But Florida responded with its own outside shooting and pulled further ahead, winning the chance to play for the championship against the winner of the Louisiana State-University of California at Los Angeles game.

Reality really sunk in with less than a minute to play when Patriots coach Jim Larranaga replaced his starting players with second-stringers.

“It’s been a phenomenal run, and we didn’t expect to get this far,” said Kelly Futoran, 19, a sophomore. “It’s been a heck of a ride.”

Patriot fans from across the country — even around the world — had turned much of downtown Indianapolis into the Mason Nation as game-time approached.

“It’s great for the whole tournament,” said Jon Kast, who arrived with his brother, Jesse, from Kansas City, Mo. “For a team that wasn’t supposed to be in the tournament to make it to the Final Four and possibly win the whole thing, that says a lot about college basketball.”

Six George Mason graduates who were freshmen when the Patriots debuted in the NCAA tournament in the 1988-89 season reunited at the Rock Bottom Brewery on Washington Street before going to the game.

“I flew in from Tokyo on Thursday night, and we drove out Friday morning from D.C.,” said Jon Murphy, an English teacher and basketball coach in western Japan. “Mason’s in the Final Four. … It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

His friend, Dan Jackson, of the District, said he has been a Patriot basketball fan for 18 years and has been “waiting for 17 years” for the team to win its first NCAA tournament game.

The Sheraton Hotel at Keystone Crossing was the official George Mason headquarters. By late morning, hundreds of students and former students swarmed the hotel, screaming out sporadic George Mason chants and anxiously awaiting the showdown with Florida.

“It’s neat having students, alumni and people who have been coming to games for 50 years,” said Theresa Dawson, a 1993 graduate who came from Alexandria with her mother.

“It’s unreal right now,” she said. “It’s like going to the Super Bowl.”

The Final Four also was a family affair for some.

Steve Bruck, who brought his 10-year-old son Eric and 7-year-old daughter Abby from Fairfax, said the children had to come because his daughter predicted a national title for George Mason when the team began play in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.

“Abby believed,” Mr. Bruck said during a pregame pep rally at the hotel. “She started the dream back in February.”

The hundreds of students who arrived at the hotel on school-sponsored buses early yesterday morning showed no signs of lack of sleep, meticulously applying face paint and counting down the time to tipoff.

“Just the fact that we’re here hasn’t really sunk in,” said junior Aaron Lindsey, who mingled in the hotel lobby wearing a green sport coat and green spinner hat. “It kind of feels like the neutral people are on our side. … If we win, Indiana is ours.”

At midafternoon, the students reboarded the buses that shuttled them to the RCA Dome.

The 30-minute trip was filled with waving pompoms and chants of “G-M-You Know” and “Later Gators.”

“The spirit is incredible,” said senior Jennifer Afzall. “It’s definitely put Mason on the map. No matter what happens [in the game], it’s still going to be good.”

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