- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

When George Mason assembled to watch the NCAA tournament selection show earlier this month, no one was more nervous than Tony Skinn.

The senior struggled badly in the Patriots’ final game, a loss to Hofstra in the Colonial Athletic Association semifinals. More importantly, he knew he would be suspended for the team’s next game after punching Hofstra’s Loren Stokes in the groin.

Skinn fretted the entire week, chatting often with coach Jim Larranaga late at night and floating the idea George Mason could miss the NCAA tournament because of his poor judgment.

His career — and George Mason’s season — appeared to be over. So when the Patriots popped up as a No. 11 seed, Skinn was just as much relieved as thrilled the Patriots earned an at-large berth.

“I just knew how he felt,” senior guard Lamar Butler said. “Selection Sunday, I’d never seen him that emotional, and he got real emotional. I just gave him a big hug and told him I couldn’t let his career end.”

Three weeks later, Skinn is still playing as the Patriots (27-7) prepare to meet Florida (31- 6) in the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis.

He spent many days at the Takoma Park Recreation Center while growing up. There, he became good friends with future NBA star Steve Francis and Jason Miskiri, who played one game in the NBA and was the point guard who helped Larranaga start building George Mason’s program in the late 1990s.

“When I was younger, deep down in my heart I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Skinn said. “Being around those guys, it kind of made me hungry and turned me into the player I am now.”

Hunger could only take Skinn so far. He fell 10 points shy of qualifying on his SAT, so he spent a year at Blinn College in Texas. But he wanted to come home and decided to attend but not play at Hagerstown Community College. The extra time would allow him to earn his degree in five years.

Skinn still needed a place to play in the long term, so Miskiri saw an opportunity to help his friend and his alma mater at the same time.

Yielding to his former star’s judgment, Larranaga sent his longtime lieutenant, Bill Courtney, to watch Skinn work out. Courtney called back to his boss, gushing about a possible star who had gone unrecruited.

“He said, ‘Coach you need to come here tomorrow. This kid is the real deal,’ ” Larranaga recalled. ” ‘He’s lightning fast, can shoot the 3 and has some Allen Iverson-type skills.’ My first thought is I really don’t like Allen Iverson, his style.”

Style issues aside, Larranaga was impressed. And Skinn was thrilled Larranaga didn’t want him to play at Hagerstown, and he chose the Patriots over Texas A&M;, Hartford and East Carolina.

Skinn was named to the All-CAA third team a year ago and the second team this season. Yet it appeared the incident against Hofstra would haunt him, even after the Patriots earned an at-large bid and a first-round date with Michigan State.

He wore a suit on the bench in the first round. At one point, Skinn implored Butler to get back in the game and to make good on his promise when he temporarily sat down with cramps.

Butler eventually returned and helped the Patriots clinch a 75-65 victory. When the final buzzer sounded, Larranaga delivered a welcome message to Skinn.

“I whispered in his ear, ‘You can take that suit off now and wear your uniform,’ ” Larranaga said.

It’s a wonder Skinn hasn’t yet taken off his jersey. He has committed only three turnovers since his return as the Patriots ousted North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut in succession to clinch their surprise berth in the Final Four.

Skinn’s steady play has impressed his old Takoma Park friend, who helped George Mason reach the tournament in 1999 before it bowed out to Cincinnati.

“He’s done a great job,” said Miskiri, who had his career ended with that NCAA loss but was back at Patriot Center to watch practice yesterday. “I’ve watched him throughout the tournament. He’s not forcing anything. He’s playing great basketball. I’m real proud of him, and I’m happy he’s from my neighborhood.”

The nervousness is gone as well. Skinn wore a large grin when he belted a grand slam in George Mason’s practice-ending Wiffle Ball game yesterday, high stepping into home plate. A bit later, he seemed a bit surprised when some young fans asked him to sign their shoes, which he did while adding a “#1” to his autograph.

Finishing No. 1 is still on Skinn’s mind, much more than the wild month he has endured. The experience provided a lesson he won’t soon forget, though receiving a chance to redeem himself has made it easier to handle.

“It was hectic. All this stuff that’s been happening, it’s just been incredible how I’ve been able to bounce back,” Skinn said. “During that period, I never thought I would ever put on another George Mason jersey. To see how everything’s turned around, it’s a great healing process because that was a tough time for me to be in such anguish.”

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