- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

The George Mason University basketball players stormed the floor in raucous glee after Denham Brown’s step-back 3-point attempt at the buzzer caromed off the rim in Tony Cheng’s green and gold neighborhood yesterday.

The ever-defiant Patriots defeated No. 1 seed Connecticut 86-84 in overtime in the Washington, D.C., Region championship, mocking anew the skeptics baffled by the tizzy-inducing journey of this mid-major representative of the Colonial Athletic Association.

Their victory was stuffed with perseverance and resolve and resilience.

The Patriots could have succumbed to self-doubt after the Huskies hiked their advantage to 12 points on Rashad Anderson’s 3-pointer with nine seconds left in the first half.

The Patriots could have succumbed to their compelling physical disadvantages against the Huskies.

Their starting lineup was 18 inches shorter overall than the NBA-approved starting lineup of the Huskies.

All five Connecticut starters are projected to be selected in the NBA Draft in June if underclassmen Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone elect to join seniors Hilton Armstrong and Brown in pursuing the riches of the professional game.

No one with the Patriots is considered worthy of the NBA, although professional scouts are probably re-assessing those views after this team ruined a nation’s worth of bracket sheets in advancing to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Anyone who claims to have had George Mason reaching the Final Four is either lying or related to coach Jim Larranaga, who doubled as the school’s head cheerleader during the cutting down of the nets after the game.

He led the celebratory throng of 19,718 in an unabashedly prideful chant, shouting “George” to the throng’s “Mason.”

It was a zillion-to-1 moment no one with the program ever thought possible. It was a zillion-to-1 moment conceived by a program that never had won a game in the NCAA tournament until it upended Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut this month.

As Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said: “They could never have imagined it.”

The Patriots exhibited a stubborn refusal to acquiesce to the disappointing twists in the exercise, none more potentially draining to their psyche than Brown’s game-tying, angle-challenging layup at the buzzer in regulation.

The ball hung on the front lip of the cylinder — long enough for the Patriots to be on the verge of running onto the court — before it slipped through the net to signal an overtime session.

That deflating sequence came about only because of Tony Skinn’s front-end miss of a one-and-one free throw opportunity with 5.5 seconds left.

The Patriots may not be as physically and athletically gifted as the Huskies. They may not have the long-term upside that NBA scouts covet.

But their players are precise in their offensive sets, play scrappy defense and are smart enough not to deviate from what they do well, which is shoot 3-pointers and play off the reads of post players Jai Lewis and Will Thomas.

And they have a grit about them.

They absorbed the blow of Brown’s layup and soon regained control of the contest in overtime. A two-footer by Lewis off an inbounds play put the Patriots up for good at 80-78 with three minutes left.

The Huskies would not have been in a position to avert the upset if, again, the Patriots had been able to convert their free throw chances in the waning seconds.

Lewis missed two free throw attempts with 6.1 seconds left, which set up Brown’s mad dash to the left wing and sent a chill down the collective spine of the mostly George Mason crowd.

How many times has this scenario worked against the team with the lead in the tournament?

This time, though, there was no miracle shot in the final seconds.

This was George Mason’s time.

This was a cue to the players and coach to bask in the implausibility of it all, to pump their fists and shout to the skies.

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