- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

When George Mason upset North Carolina on Sunday to reach the first Sweet 16 in school history, the joy spread half a world away.

George Evans, class of 2001, had his own celebration.

Evans, arguably the greatest player in George Mason history, was home alone in Mons, Belgium. His satellite dish was dialed in to the Armed Forces Network as he watched the Patriots beat the defending national champions and advance to the regional at Verizon Center only a few miles from the school’s Fairfax campus. The Patriots play Wichita State on Friday night.

“Unbelievable,” Evans said. “And now it’s a home game.”

A 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward, Evans is one of several Americans who plays for Dexia Mons-Hainault of the Belgian league. He picked his 11th-seeded alma mater in his tournament bracket to make the Sweet 16, and heard a lot of chatter from his fellow Yanks for that.

“They said it wasn’t gonna happen,” he said. “But I knew we were in the top 10 in field goal percentage defense and Michigan State (George Mason’s first-round opponent) had trouble scoring.”

George Mason won that first game 75-65. But Evans, who confessed he did not pick the Patriots to advance to the regional finals (loyalty has its limits), said he was nervous about the Tar Heels and their talented freshman Tyler Hansbrough. His apprehension did not diminish when the Patriots fell behind 16-2 in the first five minutes. Then his friends starting calling.

“Everyone started calling me, saying, ‘It’s a blowout,’ and things like that,” Evans said. “I’m like, ‘Calm down, calm down’. They stayed focused and they pulled it out.”

At Monday’s practice, there wasn’t much for anyone, except Evans, to say.

“They knew I was gonna be talking some trash,” he said. “Everyone shook my hand. I kept reiterating that none of them had their teams in the tournament.”

A week ago, most people probably could not locate George Mason on a map. Now they at least have some idea. But it was Evans and coach Jim Larranaga who put the Patriots on the basketball map, at least within the boundaries of its so-called “mid-major” status.

Evans and Larranaga both arrived in Fairfax in 1997. Recruited by Larranaga’s predecessor, Paul Westhead, Evans had to be recruited by the new staff all over again. He came with exemplary leadership skills, an unquenchable desire to succeed and a great story. He was 26, an eight-year Army veteran who fought in the first Gulf War.

Evans left as a 30-year-old college graduate and a three-time CAA player of the year. A tough, inside scorer and a strong rebounder, he led the Patriots to two NCAA tournament appearances. His pictures hang everywhere inside the George Mason basketball facility.

“George Evans is the George Washington of George Mason University,” said Larranaga, apparently caught up in the giddiness that has swept the campus. “He was the founding father. He was the No. 1 leader. He set the tone for everything we would do.

“My coaching staff and I established a philosophy and George let everyone know if that’s what Coach wants, that’s what he gets. He was and still is the most disciplined player I have ever been around. He’s an even better leader than I could ever hope for.”

Because of his age and in-between size, Evans went undrafted by the NBA. He played for coach Robert Parish and the now defunct Maryland Mustangs of the USBL in 2001 and was named rookie of the year. Then he went to Europe, choosing to play in Belgium because he could live near his old Army base, SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe), which is in Mons.

“I knew this area and the base is so close, so it was a pretty easy decision,” he said.

At 35, Evans is averaging 19 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. His team is in third place. Depending on the playoff schedule, Evans said he hopes to return to the United States and visit Larranaga.

“He’s still the same,” Evans said. “I still hear that whistle a lot.”

On Monday, Evans called Larranaga to congratulate him.

He said he asked Larranaga what he told his team when it was trailing by so much early in the game.

“What uniform are you guys wearing?” Evans quoted Larranaga as saying, “Who are you guys?”

“The greatest thing about him is motivation,” he said. “He always finds a way to spin it so everyone can relax and stay calm. When they were down 16-2, I could tell the guys were a bit nervous. But you look at Coach, he has that calming influence. He’s not a screamer.”

Neither is Evans, who, true to his Army upbringing, still regularly employs “sir” and “ma’am” in conversation. But he allowed himself a whoop of delight when the Patriots beat the Tar Heels.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” he said.

Staff writer Jon Siegel contributed to this article.

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