- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga gathered his team with 2:51 left in yesterday’s NCAA tournament regional final against Connecticut and delivered a simple message.

“This is when we prove how hard we’ve worked,” Larranaga said as chants of “George Mason” echoed throughout Verizon Center.

The Patriots did that and more.

George Mason pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in tournament history, knocking off top-seeded Connecticut 86-84 in overtime to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history. The Patriots (27-7) will meet Florida in Indianapolis on Saturday in the national semifinals.

Senior guard Lamar Butler, chosen as the most outstanding player of the regional, jumped up on a press table as Connecticut’s Denham Brown’s last-second 3-pointer clanked harmlessly off the rim. Larranaga rushed toward an impromptu pile, then pointed to his wife, Liz, in the crowd and motioned for her to come to the floor for a hug.

“When that final buzzer went off, that was just pure joy, indescribable joy,” Butler said. “It just overwhelmed me. I looked at my father and he was smiling [and] crying. My mother, they were all crying. It was like a dream come true. I used to dream about this when I was a little kid, in front of my hometown, home fans, my family.”

Many of the 19,718 in attendance remained to raucously cheer the Patriots as they cut down the nets at both ends of the floor. Larranaga joined seniors Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn and the rest of their teammates in snipping the twine. The jubilant coach also spoke on his cell phone with his son, Jay, a professional basketball player in Europe.

Some of the loudest cheers were reserved for Larranaga, who waved one net at the adoring crowd. Larranaga, a basketball lifer who for the past two decades toiled first at Bowling Green and Mason, is now headed for the sport’s brightest lights.

Mason, the No. 11 seed in the Washington bracket, tied 1986 Louisiana State as the lowest-seeded team to advance to the Final Four. The Patriots’ run is easily the most improbable because they barely reached the tournament two weeks ago, and the Fairfax school — which did not become an independent university until 1972 — had never won an NCAA tournament game before this season.

“That was the furthest thing on my mind two weeks ago,” Mason guard Gabe Norwood said. “Two weeks ago, I was just hoping to get in. I thought of it every day since the day after we got in. When opportunity knocks, open the door. That’s what we’re trying to do, just walk through the door.”

The Patriots earned an at-large berth, then methodically dispatched Michigan State, which had made four of the last seven Final Fours coming into the tournament, and defending national champion North Carolina in the first weekend. After shrugging off Wichita State on Friday, ultra-talented Connecticut was the only barrier to the Final Four.

The largely pro-Mason crowd arrived early — much as it had for the Patriots’ victory Friday — and came armed with an array of signs that included “Goliath, meet David,” “Mason brings the Kryptonite” and “We like this Patriot act.”

Perhaps reflecting national sentiment, one banner simply read “Can you believe we’re still in it?”

After yesterday, just about everyone will have to.

Mason entered with its usual nothing-to-lose attitude, as well as some motivation. Connecticut guard Rashad Anderson had guaranteed victory a day earlier, and someone in the Patriots locker room scribbled “He guaranteed WHAT?” on the dry erase board.

“In the pregame talk, I told our players they don’t know what league we’re in,” Larranaga said of his Colonial Athletic Association. “No one let the word out that we’re in a secret organization called the CAA: The Connecticut Assassins Association. … When we got that lead and there was a break on the floor, I yelled CAA. I think they knew what I was talking about.”

Mason trailed by nine at halftime, but gradually pulled closer and simultaneously brought the crowd back into the game. Even after they squandered a 74-70 lead in the final eight seconds of regulation, the Patriots didn’t lose sight of how close a Final Four berth was.

The Patriots never trailed in overtime and took an 86-81 lead with 25.4 seconds left and this time held on, setting off a wild celebration both at Verizon Center and in Fairfax. As grinning university President Alan Merten happily prepared to cancel vacation plans to Florida to instead travel to Indianapolis, Mason’s players and coaches pondered what they had accomplished.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s unbelievable. We’re going to the Final Four,” Mason assistant coach James Johnson said. “I was joking around with one of the other assistants that I sent my registration [for the coaches’ convention] in to the [National Association of Basketball Coaches] late, and I didn’t get a hotel room. To this day, I’m still on the waiting list for a hotel, but now I know why. I have one of those hotel rooms for the Final Four teams. I’m there.”

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