- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It wasn’t until they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport on Sunday night that the George Mason Patriots truly realized they had landed among the elite of college basketball.

“We had a police escort back to the Patriot Center, which was really awesome,” coach Jim Larranaga said, referring to the campus’ basketball arena. “Then we arrived here. There were over 2,000 students and fans and friends of the program here to greet our guys. It was like a pep rally.”

The Patriots had plenty to celebrate.

George Mason stunned the North Carolina Tar Heels, the defending national champions, in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday in Dayton, Ohio, to earn a berth in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

That upset came two days after a first-round victory over the sixth-seeded Michigan State Spartans, the first tournament win in school history.

The shocking victories also gave the Patriots something that definitely has been in short supply for the program — attention.

Larranaga was a blur yesterday, appearing on ESPN’s “Cold Pizza” in the morning and the network’s “Pardon the Interruption” at night. In between, everyone wanted to talk to him: The coach did a slew of television, radio and print interviews from the Associated Press to the Los Angeles Times.

The team took yesterday off to rest, and today will begin practice for Friday night’s regional semifinal against Wichita State at the Verizon Center.

“I thought I would enjoy it, but I am enjoying this even more because of my age,” said the 56-year-old coach, in his ninth season at the school. “One of the things we keep emphasizing is we want to have more fun than any other team in the tournament. We want to enjoy this. For the seniors, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You never know if you are going to get back, so you better enjoy it now.”

All this for a program that a week ago was relatively anonymous even in the Washington area, a team that constantly was overshadowed by the bigger programs at Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington.

George Mason had made only three previous appearances in the tournament, and pundits questioned whether the Patriots deserved to be in this one.

The Patriots had lost two of their final four games, both to Hofstra, a fellow Colonial Athletic Association team that failed to get an NCAA tournament bid.

And Larranaga had suspended guard Tony Skinn for one game for throwing a punch during the last loss to Hofstra — the kind of absence the NCAA tournament committee considers in offering bids, and one that chairman Craig Littlepage had suggested could knock the Patriots out of the field.

After a tough week of waiting, George Mason saw its name flash on television on Selection Sunday as the 11th seed in the Washington, D.C., Region of the tournament.

The Patriots justified the selection with its 75-65 upset of the Spartans on Friday. They followed that up with the still more shocking 65-60 victory over the Tar Heels on Sunday.

“I guess that is why they call it the Sweet 16,” Skinn said. “It is a sweet feeling. It’s a dream come true. … In the back of your mind, you know you have done something great, but to see the number of people saying, ‘Congratulations, thanks, thanks.’ Something big has happened.”

The city of Fairfax hung a banner above the intersection of Route 123 and Lee Highway that read, “Congratulations GMU Patriots.” One of Skinn’s professors stopped class for 15 minutes to talk about the game. Larranaga was mobbed at a nearby McDonald’s by well-wishers and autograph-seekers.

“Students today said they felt like they go to ‘real’ university,” said Lamar Butler, a senior guard. “It lets me know we are doing something good and making students feel good. You never hear about George Mason. As players, we feel like we are inferior sometimes because of the press. We know we are a good team. The only way to [prove it] is to win. That is what we are doing now.”

The team’s success has helped raise the profile of a school that isn’t well-known nationally.

“Now the world that looks at sports and reads newspapers knows George Mason,” athletic director Tom O’Connor said. “It is great brand identity for the school. It is great brand identity for this area. And it is wonderful for the kids and coaches.”

Few things are more wonderful than an escorted trip home from the airport.

“We didn’t stop at stop signs, stoplights,” Butler said. “It took us about 10 minutes to get from Dulles airport to campus. It usually is about a 30-minute ride. It was unbelievable.”

The Patriots plan on enjoying the ride as long as possible.

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