- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio — The Patriots now have a place in NCAA tournament lore.

Justifying its much-debated at-large bid in style, George Mason rocked the Washington bracket with a program-defining 75-65 victory over perennial powerhouse Michigan State last night at University of Dayton Arena.

It was George Mason’s first NCAA tournament victory in school history.

“I’m having so much fun that I told the guys I just want to keep it rolling,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said.

George Mason will face No. 3 seed North Carolina at approximately 5 p.m. tomorrow.

The 11th-seeded Patriots (24-7) not only beat the Spartans (22-12), a program that had been to four of the last seven Final Fours, but they set the pace throughout and dominated the Big Ten behemoth in virtually every statistical category.

The Patriots outrebounded the larger Spartans by a stunning margin (40-24), shot an incredible 59.2 percent from the field and rode sophomores Folarin Campbell (21 points, seven rebounds) and Will Thomas (18 points, 14 rebounds) in a game that would have been far more lopsided had the Patriots not missed 10 free throws over the final 2:32.

Not bad for a George Mason team that spent the last six days listening to the nation’s collective media lambaste its inclusion in the NCAA tournament field.

“We just came out and used that as motivation,” said George Mason senior center Jai Lewis, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. “We were number nine defensively in the nation in field goal percentage [38.6 percent]. Our RPI was high [No. 26]. We won our conference in the regular season. And now we just beat Michigan State today. I think that’s enough to let people know that we deserve it.”

There was certainly nobody barking about George Mason’s invitation by the time the sweat dried last night. Even without all-conference guard Tony Skinn, who was serving a one-game suspension for punching an opposing player in the groin in the CAA semifinals, the Patriots more than held their own against Michigan State’s talented trio of Drew Neitzel (14 points, eight assists), Shannon Brown (five points, four assists) and Maurice Ager (27 points).

Not only did Campbell tie a season high courtesy of his perfect night from the field (8-for-8), he locked down Brown on the defensive end, holding him to just 2-for-11 shooting before Brown fouled out down the stretch. Inside, Thomas was brilliant against Spartans center Paul Davis (10 points, five rebounds), holding the All-Big Ten senior to roughly half his season averages, including just two points in the second half.

“I don’t think those guys talked about Will defensively, but the whole key [to this game] was having a player who takes on the challenge of guarding a great player like Davis,” Larranaga said. “Our defense, which has been so consistent all year long, was a big key. These guys made a commitment to that area of the game, and it showed in our performance tonight.”

Perhaps most impressively, the Patriots were unflappable when Michigan State battled back from an eight-point deficit midway through the second half. A 3-pointer from Ager gave the Spartans their first lead after the break at 52-51 with 6:39 remaining.

But instead of wavering, George Mason responded with a 10-0 run on a pair of baskets from Campbell, a follow-up from Thomas and a 3-pointer from senior guard Lamar Butler (13 points) to take a commanding lead. They never came close to relinquishing it despite poor free throw shooting down the stretch.

“I think you have to give George Mason a lot of credit,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They took it to us early, kicked our butts inside and shot 70 percent on us with eight or nine minutes to go in the second half. … I’ve got to say that in my nine years, this is one of the more disappointing evenings I’ve had in this job.”

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