- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

The student center at George Mason University was more like a rollicking high school gym yesterday, as students, some professors and staff in green and gold cheered the Patriots’ improbable run in the NCAA basketball tournament.

“George,” shouted a pre-medical student from a stage.

“Mason,” hollered scores of students as they ate their lunch at the Fairfax campus.

Yesterday’s impromptu gathering at the Johnson Center was an example of the enthusiasm displayed this week by some of the nearly 30,000 George Mason students as their men’s basketball team prepares to play No. 7 Wichita State University tonight in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The game begins at 7:27 p.m. at the Verizon Center in the District.

The Patriots, the 11th seed in the Washington, D.C., region, are making their first appearance in the Sweet 16, and it is the first trip for a Colonial Athletic Association team to the regional semifinals since 1988.

“I’ve been here 20 years. It’s never been this exciting,” said Pat Donini, 53, the university’s deputy director of human resources, who was in the crowd.

GMU President Alan G. Merten and several administrators also showed up at the gathering, dressed in school colors.

Many in the crowd wore shirts with messages, most written in green and gold. “Sweet 16 Who? GMU,” read one sign. “Patriot Pride,” read another. “The Slipper Fits, George Mason,” and “I [green heart] Mason,” read others.

Outside the center, the statue of George Mason was draped with a gold “Go Mason” T-shirt, and tied to it were big, floating bouquets of green and gold balloons. The university is named after George Mason, the Virginia patriot and one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, who pressed for a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

The enthusiasm was felt off campus, too.

A large yellow sign, hung above Route 123, read, “Congratulations GMU Patriots, Good Luck In The Round of 16, From the City of Fairfax.”

Also yesterday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors proclaimed today as George Mason University Day in the county.

Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly and other supervisors will host a ceremony at 12:30 p.m. today at the Fairfax County Government Center, where Mr. Connolly will present Mr. Merten with a proclamation in recognition of the men’s basketball team’s outstanding performance in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

In the first two rounds, the Patriots beat Michigan State University — a Final Four team last year — and defending national champion University of North Carolina.

“With its entrance into the Sweet 16, George Mason University has come into its own,” Mr. Connolly said. “It is now an institution of academic excellence and athletic prowess. We are very proud of their accomplishments. They are a credit to the Fairfax County community, and we wish the Patriots continued success.”

George Mason has had eight consecutive winning seasons, and played in five postseason tournaments. Two of those were in the National Invitational Tournament.

Earlier this week, hundreds of George Mason students camped out overnight at the university Field House to purchase Sweet 16 tickets. Some had tents, but many were allowed inside overnight, said Linda Harber, 52, a human resources administrator, who wore a green wig yesterday.

Some 400 tickets for tonight’s game went on sale for students on Wednesday morning. All were sold out.

For those who can’t attend the game, it will be shown on a giant screen at the Johnson Center, just as highlights of the team’s winning games this season were shown yesterday.

More than three dozen watch parties also are planned in 10 states and the District tonight.

Meanwhile, No. 7 seed Georgetown Hoyas face No. 3 seed Florida tonight in Minneapolis.

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