- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The small, computer-generated sign in the window of the bookstore inside the Johnson Center on the George Mason campus said it all: “The Slipper fits. Go Mason.”

One day later, it still seemed absurd, unthinkable: The George Mason Patriots, the unheralded team from an afterthought of a conference, are going to the Final Four.

The Patriots completed perhaps the most unlikely run to the NCAA basketball tournament’s semifinals by beating top-seeded Connecticut in a regional final Sunday at the Verizon Center. The Patriots face the Florida Gators in the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis.

Yesterday, even the players couldn’t quite believe what they had done.

“I still have this knot in my stomach because I haven’t had time to grasp this yet,” guard Tony Skinn said. “It is unbelievable. I am just running circles in my head.”

So is the rest of the sports world.

CBS analyst Billy Packer two weeks ago loudly criticized the selection of mid-major conference teams like George Mason to the tournament.

Mr. Packer, if not declaring himself wrong yesterday, at least declared himself astounded by the Patriots’ run.

“If you had said to me on Selection Sunday there is a team in America that … can beat in 11 days Michigan State on a neutral floor, North Carolina on a neutral floor, Wichita State on a neutral floor and Connecticut on a neutral floor, I would say not in a million years is there a college team that can do that,” Packer said.

Particularly not a school like George Mason, which had never won an NCAA tournament game, had not been to the tournament since 2001 and was happy just to get a bid this season.

“I never thought it would get this far,” point guard Folarin Campbell said. “Just making the tournament was a great season.”

The team’s arena, the Patriot Center, buzzed yesterday, with coach Jim Larranaga running between live shots on CNN and spots on radio shows. The tree-lined campus on Braddock Road drew a crowd as the against-all-odds success story of the Patriots became the talk of the sports nation.

The Patriots, at No. 11, became just the second team seeded that low to reach the Final Four — the 1986 Louisiana State team also was seeded 11th and reached the semifinals. Louisiana State, however, hails from a power conference and has a rich basketball history.

The Patriots were out to make history this season just by getting into the tournament. George Mason wanted to put itself in position to make the NCAAs even if it did not win Colonial Athletic Association tournament and the accompanying automatic bid.

The Patriots did just that, losing in the conference tournament but nevertheless receiving an at-large NCAA bid. That made George Mason the first team from the CAA to receive an at-large bid since the Navy squad led by center David Robinson in 1986.

“I changed my goals and just said, ‘Give me an at-large berth. I will settle for that,’” said Larranaga, 56, in his 20th season as a head coach. “You don’t know how hard it is when you are not in the top six or seven leagues to get a bid.”

Or how hard it is to win once you get in.

Yet, playing without the suspended Skinn, their second-leading scorer, the Patriots still stunned Michigan State 75-65 in the first round.

With Skinn back on the floor, Mason eliminated defending champion North Carolina 65-60 to reach the Sweet 16 — the first time a CAA team had advanced that far since Richmond in 1988. Then came an easier victory over Wichita State.

“After the Michigan State game, we felt we really could do something,” Campbell said. “We beat a team that went to Final Four. We watched the North Carolina game afterwards and said, ‘We think we can play with those guys.’ We got out there with no fear and competed with them. With us beating those two teams, we felt there was no reason to lose to Wichita State. They are a good team, but we were playing at a different level.”

That brought George Mason to the regional final against a Connecticut team stocked with future NBA players. The Patriots took a four-point lead into the final minute. However, Connecticut rallied to force overtime.

“What amazed me about what happened in the overtime was not that they won the game, but they came off the bench and were able to dominate in the first few minutes a Connecticut team that I think all of us agree is the most talented team in the country,” Mr. Packer said.

The Patriots finished off an 86-84 victory in overtime, in the process becoming a national phenomenon. George Mason had given hope to all the little guys, the schools that have only a fraction of the budgets, media attention and fans of the big-time programs.

The Patriots turned college basketball upside down, and now they are booking a trip to Indianapolis for a chance to make more history.

“Nobody knew about us,” Skinn said. “But they do now and will forever.”

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