- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio — The Mason Miracles are bringing their show home to the Sweet 16.

Unheralded George Mason authored an encore stunner at University of Dayton Arena yesterday, ousting defending national champion North Carolina 65-60 in the second round of the NCAA tournament to advance to next week’s Washington Region semifinals.

“When opportunity knocks, open the door,” said elated George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, whose charges will meet seventh-seeded Wichita State on Friday at Verizon Center. “I read something in the paper today where someone said, ‘In this tournament, there are no upsets. There are just good teams, playing hard and playing well.’ I would like to think that’s true because the college game has changed dramatically over the years. Quite frankly, there is a lot of parity in the country now.”

Minutes after George Mason put the finishing touches on its shocker, Georgetown began to put an exclamation point of Beltway brilliance in Dayton, routing No. 2 seed Ohio State 70-52. The Hoyas (23-9), back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001, will face No. 3 seed Florida and blossoming beast Joakim Noah in Minneapolis on Friday.

“We were rooting for them, and they were rooting for us,” Georgetown guard Ashanti Cook said of the local Dayton double. “After they won, they came by our locker room and wished us good luck, told us to represent D.C. We showed each other love all week here.”

For George Mason (25-7), Friday’s Sweet 16 game represents an enviable rematch. The Patriots dropped Wichita State 70-67 at home in Kansas on Feb. 18 and should be favored to beat the Shockers in a building just 20 miles from its Fairfax campus.

“It’s pretty ironic,” said George Mason senior guard Tony Skinn, who made three clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the victory over North Carolina. The press “has been talking about [Wichita State’s] Missouri Valley Conference all year, and nobody has said anything about the [Colonial Athletic Association]. It’s hard to believe now both of those conferences are in the Sweet 16. A lot of people counted both ballclubs out. It’s a great feeling.”

Even before toppling the mighty Tar Heels (23-8), the Patriots had enjoyed a productive stint in Dayton courtesy of a 75-65 first-round upset of perennial Big Ten power Michigan State. That victory was the program’s first in NCAA tournament play and more than justified the team’s debated at-large selection. But yesterday’s victory over the second-winningest college program in history — behind only Kentucky — cements the Patriots’ place as the darlings of this year’s big dance.

“Coach told us when we got into the tournament that teams like that, Michigan State and North Carolina, are supposed to beat us,” said Skinn, who served a one-game suspension against the Spartans for throwing a punch in the semifinals of the CAA tournament two weeks ago. “That is a lot of pressure on them.”

But most of yesterday’s pressure on North Carolina was of the external variety as George Mason swarmed the Tar Heels with Larranaga’s signature defense. After falling behind 27-20 at halftime, the Patriots forced the Tar Heels into turnovers on their first six possessions of the second half and parlayed those baby blue miscues into a quick 8-0 run to take a 28-27 lead on a transition layup from sophomore swingman Folarin Campbell (15 points, seven rebounds, four assists) with 17:51 remaining in the game.

The lead teetered tenuously between the two teams over the 15 minutes before George Mason senior Lamar Butler (18 points) took command of the game down the stretch. The 6-foot-2 guard from Fort Washington scored four consecutive points on a pair of free throws and a gutsy slashing layup in traffic to put the Patriots up 58-54 with just 1:06 remaining.

Instead of feeding freshman All-American center Tyler Hansbrough (10 points, nine rebounds), North Carolina put the game in the hands of senior forward David Noel (22 points), who almost single-handedly kept the Tar Heels in the game in the second half. But Noel missed an uncontested three-pointer in the corner, and George Mason clinched the victory by converting seven of eight free-throw attempts in the closing 52 seconds to touch off a green-and-gold celebration.

“We never stopped believing,” said Butler, leaving the court amid raucous applause from the large contingent of George Mason fans who made the pilgrimage to Dayton.

Said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, “We congratulate George Mason. That’s what makes this tournament, in my opinion, the greatest sporting event there is. Nobody probably thought George Mason could beat Michigan State and North Carolina back to back. But that’s college basketball.”

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