- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

George Mason sensed the moment.

As the clock wound down in regulation in yesterday’s Washington, D.C., regional final at Verizon Center, the Patriots held an improbable Final Four berth in their grasp.

But they would have to put the celebration on hold.

At least for five minutes.

Eleventh-seeded George Mason eventually stunned No.1 Connecticut 86-84 in overtime, becoming perhaps the most unlikely team to reach the Final Four. Their trip to Indianapolis took just a little longer than they would have liked.

With six seconds left in regulation, George Mason guard Tony Skinn missed the front-end of a one-and-one that could have put the Patriots up four. Connecticut’s Denham Brown raced down the court and threw a reverse layup off the backboard that bounced three times on the rim before dropping through as time expired, tying the game 74-74 and sending it to overtime.

Instead of erupting in the greatest moment in their history, the Patriots quietly went back to their bench.

“I told them, ‘There is no place I would rather be than here with you guys in the Verizon Center playing Connecticut,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. “Now we have to beat them in a five-minute game. You didn’t play defense for five seconds. You’ve got to go overtime. Now we have to beat them in a five-minute game.”

The Patriots did exactly that.

With three minutes left, Jai Lewis grabbed his own rebound and scored on a layup to make it 80-78, and Will Thomas hit a left-handed hook to push the lead to four.

The Patriots led 86-81 with 26 seconds left, but UConn made one final push. Rudy Gay’s 3-pointer with 10 seconds left cut the lead to three. After Lewis missed a pair of free throws that could have sealed the game with six seconds left, Brown dribbled up the floor, pushed back George Mason’s Folarin Campbell and launched a potentially game-winning 3-pointer.

It bounced off the rim. The red light flashed. Game over.

George Mason defied the odds and became only the second team with such a low seed — joining No.11 LSU in 1986 — to advance to the Final Four. The Patriots play Florida in Indianapolis on Saturday at 6 p.m.

The Huskies’ final miss sparked pandemonium. Lamar Butler danced on the scorer’s table and held up four fingers, signifying the Final Four appearance. Larranga was so excited he ran around and forgot to shake hands with Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. A tearful, net-cutting ceremony soon followed.

“That was just pure, indescribable joy,” said Butler, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring 19 points and making four of six 3-pointers. “It just overwhelmed me. I looked at my father, he was smiling, crying. My mother, they were all crying. It was like a dream come true.”

The day began with a classic motivational speech by Larranaga, playing on the fact that the Connecticut players didn’t even know what league the Patriots play in. George Mason became the first Colonial Athletic Association team to reach the Final Four, but before the game Larranaga said CAA stood for “Connecticut Assassins Association.”

The Patriots (27-7) lived up to the billing by making the Huskies (30-4) their latest victims after getting a controversial at-large bid to the NCAA tournament before upsetting Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State to reach the Elite Eight.

George Mason did it by playing off its big men Lewis (20 points) and Thomas (19 points, 12 rebounds). The duo set up the offense and found teammates for open outside shots. The Patriots shot 50 percent overall, including 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

Skinn finished with 10 points, while Campbell had 15. Rudy Gay, an expected NBA lottery pick, led Connecticut with 20 points.

“They spaced us out and kept us away from doubling the bigs,” Calhoun said. “And when they did double bigs, they made us pay [by making open outside shots.]”

The Patriots also did a good job limiting the much larger and athletic Huskies on second chances and outrebounded them by three.

George Mason rallied after trailing 47-38 shortly after halftime. Thomas’ left-handed hook sparked an 8-0 run, which closed with Butler nailing a 3-pointer from the right side off a crosscourt pass from Gabe Norwood to cut the Huskies lead to 47-46. A putback by Jeff Adrien (17 points) pushed the lead back to three, before Campbell’s 3-pointer tied the game at 49-49 with 12:33 left.

Butler’s transition 3-pointer gave George Mason a 52-51 lead, and the Patriots soon led 56-52 on another Butler 3-pointer. Connecticut answered with six straight and took a 61-60 lead on a 3-pointer by Gay with 7:29 left.

The Patriots rallied for a 74-70 lead with 18 seconds left before UConn came back to force overtime.

Marcus Williams’ deep 3-pointer cut George Mason’s lead to 86-84 with 10 seconds left in overtime. Lewis missed two foul shots, and the Patriots had to wait until Brown’s final errant shot to seal an unbelievable berth in the Final Four.

“We lost today to a really gutsy, gutsy, and by the way, real good George Mason team, who truly took advantage of what they have better than we took advantage of what we have,” Calhoun said.

As a result, George Mason’s storybook season will end in Indianapolis in the Final Four.


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