- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

As George Mason waited to begin its shootaround at Verizon Center, Lamar Butler autographed copies of this week’s Sports Illustrated, which features his picture on some of the covers.

His coach, Jim Larranaga, was doing something similar for some pint-sized fans, leaving his signature on baseball caps. He flashed the same smile that saturated TV audiences all week, and his New York accent emerged every time he asked “How ya’ doin’?”

Well, these days, George Mason is doing just fine.

The Patriots made the 20-mile commute downtown yesterday for their final practice before tonight’s Sweet 16 matchup with Wichita State. The 11th-seeded Patriots never had won an NCAA tournament game before this remarkable run. The past two weeks almost were like a fairy tale — but not the one usually associated with NCAA tournament underdogs.

“I told our guys if we’re going to be Cinderella, you have to remember Cinderella was a beautiful young lady that turned eventually into a princess, and I don’t think our guys want to be referred to as princesses,” Larranaga said. “But, you know, the idea of you kiss a frog and it turns into a prince, you know, kind of like us. Before the tournament began, nobody ever heard of George Mason.”

Yesterday was just the latest arrival for the Patriots, who thrust themselves onto the national scene last week by ousting perennial power Michigan State and defending national champion North Carolina.

“As college basketball players at a mid-major level, it’s a great feeling,” George Mason guard Tony Skinn said. “You couldn’t ask for a greater script to this season.”

As a result, the Patriots (25-7) got an unlikely rematch with the Shockers (26-8) with a trip to Sunday’s regional final at stake. George Mason beat the Missouri Valley Conference regular season champions 70-67 in Kansas on Feb. 18 in an ESPN Bracket buster contest.

In the first meeting, the Patriots made 11 of 23 3-pointers and shot 61.9 percent in the second half while building a 13-point lead. However, the Shockers rallied to tie the game in the final minute before Skinn, who had a game-high 23 points, hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 13 seconds left.

Both coaches expect a similarly tight contest. The Shockers center around MVC player of the year Paul Miller, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound senior averaging 13.0 points and 6.6 rebounds. Combo guard Sean Ogirri averages 12.2 points while shooting 45.3 percent from beyond the arc.

“We have to take away their inside game with Paul Miller and keep them from shooting 3s,” Mason forward Will Thomas said. “That’s how they came back on us in the first game. If we play the type of defense we have all year, we should come out with the win.”

The Shockers have a slight size advantage, though George Mason is more athletic. The Patriots’ offense starts inside with the 6-7, 275-pound Jai Lewis, an all-Colonial Athletic Association center who averages 13.8 points and 7.9 rebounds. He opens up opportunities for the explosive backcourt of Skinn (12.6 points) and Butler (11.7 points).

Folarin Campbell (10.7 points, 3.6 assists) and Thomas (11.7 points) contribute to the balanced attack. Gabe Norwood, who started because of Skinn’s one-game suspension against Michigan State, is expected to start for the third straight game because Larranaga doesn’t want to change the winning lineup.

If not for George Mason, the Shockers would be the region’s surprise team. Seventh-seeded Wichita State is in its first NCAA tournament since 1988 and won its first game since 1981. The Shockers cruised past Seton Hall 86-66 in the first round before upsetting second-seeded Tennessee.

Mason’s unlikely run means Wichita State essentially is playing a road game.

“We played in tough environments all year,” said Shockers coach Mark Turgeon, who played and coached under Larry Brown at Kansas and is in his sixth season at Wichita State. “They had to come to our place for bracket busters and they beat us, and now we have to come here and play them. That’s life.”

Right now, it’s a wonderful life for both teams, one that includes plenty of newfound celebrity.

Butler signed one last Sports Illustrated cover (there are six different regional covers this week) before leaving the court for the locker room and a host of media early yesterday afternoon.

“This is something I can tell my kids about,” said Butler, who looked around the arena to absorb the moment. “It will stay with me for a lifetime.”

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