- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

The George Mason University basketball team extended its date with the absurd last night.

The program with a previously thin NCAA tournament resume advanced to the Washington, D.C., Region final by defeating Wichita State 63-55 on Fun Street.

The Patriots are now among the last eight teams in the NCAA tournament and, crazy as it is, one game from appearing in the Final Four.

Not even coach Jim Larranaga and the players could tell you they ever imagined this.

It is too far-fetched, too steep in long odds.

But believe it. Savor it.

The Patriots are an Elite Eight team, and they landed there in fairly convincing fashion against a Missouri Valley Conference entry.

The Patriots fed off the good feelings of the crowd.

Theirs was almost a home game. The George Mason campus in Fairfax is about 20 miles from Tony Cheng’s neighborhood.

No one anticipated this prospect going into the NCAA tournament, for no one anticipated this would be the March that the Patriots finally advanced beyond footnote status.

The Patriots hit three 3-pointers to open the game, which caused Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon to burn an early timeout.

His Shockers were playing down to their moniker, as they appeared blinded by the bright lights of the stage.

Patriots coach Jim Larranaga suggested this would be an entertaining encounter.

It was hardly that, if by entertaining he meant lots of lead changes and a tight finish.

The Shockers could not shake their fog.

They shot 30 percent in the first half and committed five turnovers, as the Patriots cruised to a 35-19 lead and could begin to think the unthinkable.

The Patriots are in the nation’s top8 after failing to be in the top3 locally.

The Patriots spent most of the season in the shadow of Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington.

Maryland was excused from the postseason in the first round of the stirring We’re No. 66 tournament.

George Washington fattened up on an embarrassingly weak schedule as it rose to an overstated ranking in the Top 25 poll. The Colonials played the frail and soft and pleaded with everyone to believe in them. They are long gone. Out of here.

Larranaga has not taken the occasion to chide anyone for not recognizing his program sooner.

A lot of trees were used in celebration of George Washington’s undefeated run in the Atlantic 10 in the regular season. News of the Patriots could be found on the inside pages of the sports section.

The Patriots are inside-page material no longer.

They have two more days to soak up the adulation and hoopla. They have two more days to explain who they are. They have two more days to be the loveable no-names of the event.

The Shockers never could mount a serious challenge in the second half.

The Patriots received contributions from all sorts, which is a quality of their team. Anyone in their starting lineup is liable to have a big game as they feature five players averaging in double-figures.

Folarin Campbell, Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler overwhelmed the Shockers with a 3-point barrage.

Try as they might to respond, the Shockers were not able to play with enough cohesion to put the fear in the Patriots down the stretch.

The Patriots tried to aid the Shockers as they endured a frightful stretch of free throw shooting that enabled the visitors to keep a faint hope.

Mostly, though, the Patriots won with conviction. No last-second shot was needed to prevail. No improbable play was necessary.

The Patriots are where they never thought they could be, where their mid-major kind is not usually allowed.

Theirs is a once-in-a-lifetime trek — unreal and unbelievable.

The George Mason coaches, players, faculty and student body are floating on air until the next game.

The next challenge, far more difficult than Wichita State, arrives tomorrow for the Patriots.

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