- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

George Mason guard Lamar Butler looked up into the stands at his family in the closing seconds of last night’s regional semifinal at Verizon Center and raised eight fingers to symbolize the number of teams remaining in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Improbably, the Patriots are one of them.

George Mason never trailed as it rolled to a 63-55 victory over Wichita State to advance to the Elite Eight in the Washington Region. The 11th-seeded Patriots (26-7) will meet the winner of last night’s Connecticut-Washington game tomorrow.

“These guys made their free throws down the stretch and they were able to come away and move into the Elite Eight,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. “That sounds awfully good.”

Folarin Campbell scored 16 points, and Butler and Tony Skinn both added 14 for the Patriots, who were considered by many analysts as one of the tournament selection committee’s more dubious picks when the 65-team field was announced March12.

Since then, George Mason has proved decisively it merited inclusion as an at-large selection, becoming the lowest-seeded team to reach a regional final since No. 12 Missouri in 2002. The Patriots are the first No. 11 seed in the Elite Eight since Loyola Marymount in 1990 and the first team from the Colonial Athletic Association to get this far since Navy in 1986.

The Patriots led 35-19 at the break and maintained a double-digit lead for most of the second half. Every time the Shockers tried to mount a rally, George Mason answered with a brief run of its own.

Butler helped clinch the game with three free throws in the final minute, then grinned almost in disbelief as the final seconds ticked away.

“I just recall everyone saying we weren’t supposed to be here, and now we’re in the Elite Eight,” Butler said. “It was just an adrenaline rush from my head down to my feet. I can’t describe it. It was an awesome feeling.”

The Patriots won 70-67 at Wichita State (26-9) last month, and both teams expected another tight game last night. Instead, the Patriots scored the first nine points, all on 3-pointers, and left the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champions stunned.

The run further energized George Mason, which came out relaxed and never had reason to tighten up, even in the final minutes.

“We all believed,” George Mason guard Gabe Norwood said. “This is beautiful right now. We’re just enjoying it right now.”

George Mason’s win ensured the area would have a presence in the tournament for the rest of the weekend. Georgetown lost to Florida 57-53 last night in Minneapolis.

It had been a wild week for George Mason, which was a virtual unknown nationally until the Patriots defeated national powers Michigan State and North Carolina in a three-day span. The school was not founded until 1957 and did not become independent of the University of Virginia until 1972.

The Patriots’ basketball history included NCAA tournament trips in 1989, 1999 and 2001. Players and coaches were hailed upon their return home by fans after the second round, and the opportunity to play near George Mason’s Fairfax campus ensured a raucous, partisan crowd in the regional semifinal.

Yellow-clad fans stormed in when arena doors opened two hours before tipoff, prepared to celebrate yet another George Mason victory. Patriots fans quickly filled up several sections in the upper level, and chants of “Let’s go Mason” echoed through the building as the teams warmed up.

“Having that kind of support from our student body and from the George Mason community and the Fairfax community, even the whole D.C. metro area has adopted this team,” Larranaga said. “We’re all just loving it.”

For some fans, it was a realization of a longtime dream of seeing their oft-ignored school on a large stage.

“I was a fan when I was in school, and I’ve been a fan ever since,” said Troy Van Winkle, a 2000 George Mason alum who had his face painted with green and gold for the occasion. “Now, seeing my team go to the Sweet 16, it’s a dream come true.”

Last night made the dream even better.

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