- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

RICHMOND — Midway through the second half of last night’s game against Old Dominion, the George Mason band began piping out its version of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” the Bon Jovi song that became the Patriots’ anthem on their unimaginable trip to the Final Four last season.

The song played as the Patriots were in the latter stages of their latest postseason surprise — a 79-63 blowout of the second-seeded Monarchs in the Colonial Athletic Association semifinals. Sixth-seeded George Mason has won three straight days in Richmond Coliseum and will try to complete a sweep of the regular season’s top three teams tonight when it meets Virginia Commonwealth in the Rams’ home city.

One more victory would put George Mason, which had a disappointing 15-14 regular season, back in the field of 65 a season after earning the program’s first four NCAA tournament wins. Patriots sophomore guard Dre Smith continued his breakout tournament last night with a team-high 19 points, including his team’s first eight in a game-opening 21-8 run.

“It was very much like the first two nights of the tournament,” said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, whose team eliminated 11th-seeded James Madison, Hofstra and Old Dominion in a span of 48 hours. “Our guys were ready to play physically, emotionally and mentally. It helps to get off to a good start.”

The Monarchs (24-8) came in as the league’s hottest team with a 12-game winning streak but now will have to wait until Sunday to see whether they get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Smith, a 6-foot junior college transfer in his first season in Fairfax, has set a single tournament record with 12 3-pointers over the three games. He made three of eight 3-pointers last night.

“I’m just not worrying about it anymore,” said Smith, who scored a career-best 26 points and made his first seven 3-pointers in the opening round. “I am just playing.”

George Mason shot 58.3 percent overall, led by 16 late in the first half and by 22 with 16:23 left in the game after a dunk by Will Thomas (12 points on 5-for-5 shooting) off an assist from Folarin Campbell (18 points, eight rebounds, four assists). The Monarchs got no closer than 12 the rest of the way, and their large contingent of fans among the 11,200 — the first sellout crowd in CAA tournament history — had little to cheer about.

The Patriots also dominated in rebounding again, particularly in the decisive first half, when they had a 21-11 advantage. George Mason freshman forward Louis Birdsong is also picking up his play in the tournament; he came off the bench and had nine rebounds, five points and two assists in 12 minutes.

Old Dominion shot just 35.4 percent and went 3-for-21 (14.3 percent) on 3-pointers. Drew Williamson led the Monarchs with 16 points and led a modest second-half rally. All-CAA forward Valdas Vasylius finished with 13 points on 3-for-10 shooting and seemed to be affected by the Patriots’ physical defense.

George Mason had an answer each time Old Dominion threatened to get back into the game. The Monarchs used a 12-4 run to cut George Mason’s lead to 54-40 with eight minutes left on Williamson’s layup before the Patriots’ Gabe Norwood made a deep 3-pointer — his only points of the game — to reassert control.

Old Dominion’s last gasp came after Vasylius scored an inside basket to trim the Patriots’ advantage to 61-49 with 4:40 left. However, Campbell countered with a three-point play after posting up his man. George Mason shook off early woes at the free throw line, making nine of 10 in the final three minutes to complete the latest surprise for a team that seemed to have little prayer this weekend after losing 73-50 at Northeastern in its regular season finale.

“They are energized a little bit when things are going well,” Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said. “You look at their double-digit lead at halftime [in the quarterfinal against Hofstra] and another double-digit lead at halftime against us. They are fueled by that a little bit and the opportunity. And they probably feel like there is no tomorrow. Really, in their minds, there is no tomorrow. … They got themselves in a spot in this tournament where they knew they needed to do something. And to their credit, they are doing it.”

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