WASHINGTON (AP) -- George Mason's players stood on the press
table, waving their jerseys to the crowd. Coach Jim Larranaga
walked around with the nylon net around his neck.
It won't be the same old schools from the same old conferences
at this year's Final Four -- certainly not top-seeded Connecticut.
Buoyed by a partisan crowd and playing some 20 miles from their
campus, 11th-seeded George Mason overcame huge disadvantages in
size, athleticism and history Sunday to stun the Huskies 86-84 in
overtime, ending a stranglehold that big-time programs have enjoyed
for 27 years in college basketball's biggest showcase.
Improbable as it may seem, the powers-that-be are going to have
to make room for a suburban commuter school from Fairfax, Va., that
was a dicey choice to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.
"I was kidding with one of my assistants," Larranaga said,
"We're not just an at-large team, we're an at-extra-large. And if
we win today, we're going to be an at-extra-double-large. I can't
tell you how much fun I'm having."
The Patriots overcame their deficiencies with heart and
tenacity. They were never rattled, even when they trailed by 12
late in the first half and nine early in the second. They hit six
straight 3-pointers in the second half, shot 5-for-6 in overtime
and outrebounded UConn 37-34 even though the Huskies have three
starters taller than any of the Patriots' frontcourt players.
There was also motivation from Larranaga, who fired up his team
during timeouts by telling them that UConn's players didn't even
know which conference George Mason is in.
"That's a little bit of disrespect," guard Tony Skinn said.
"Coach told us the CAA stands for 'Connecticut Assassin
Of course, as more people are learning, CAA stands for Colonial
Athletic Association, a league that has never had a team get this
far before. The Patriots (27-7) are only the second double-digit
seed to make the Final Four, matching LSU's run, also as an 11th
seed, in 1986. They are the first true outsider to crash the
quartet since Penn and Indiana State both got there in 1979.
George Mason next plays No. 3 seed Florida in Saturday's
semifinals in Indianapolis. This marks the first time since the
field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that no top-seeded team
advanced to the Final Four, and the second time in tournament
The Patriots' at-large selection was roundly criticized by many,
including CBS commentator Billy Packer. George Mason's fans chanted
Packer's name in the postgame celebration.
"I think it's been working for us, calling us Cinderella,"
Skinn said. "We were not supposed to get into the tournament, we
got into it. We were not supposed to beat Michigan State and we
beat them. Weren't supposed to beat North Carolina and we beat
them. We definitely weren't supposed to be UConn. I think we'll
stick to the script going into whoever we play. We don't mind being
All five Mason starters finished in double figures. Jai Lewis
had 20, and Lamar Butler and Will Thomas each scored 19.
Larranaga's team kept the same five players in the game from the
10:37 mark of regulation to the very end of overtime. Butler was
chosen as the most outstanding player of the regional, and he and
his father were in tears as they hugged at length on the court
after the game.
"I feel so good, through my own sadness, for Jim Larranaga,"
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Playing at that level is not easy.
I can only imagine the feeling they must have on that campus, in
that locker room. ... It's something they probably never imagined.
We've imagined it, and we've done it. They could never have
George Mason, having by far the best season in school history,
had never won an NCAA Tournament game until it beat half of last
year's Final Four -- Michigan State and No. 3 seed North Carolina --
back-to-back in the first two rounds. Now it can say it has beaten
the last two national champions -- Connecticut and North Carolina.
Rudy Gay scored 20, and Jeff Adrien had a career-high 17 points
for Connecticut (30-4), which never could put together a complete
game in the tournament. The Huskies had to rally from double-digit
second-half deficits to beat Albany and Washington and barely held
"They played tough and have a lot of heart," Gay said.
"That's all that really matters when you play a game like this."
Folarin Campbell's tough baseline fadeaway gave the Patriots an
84-80 lead in overtime, and UConn suddenly looked like a rattled
underdog from a mid-major. Rashad Anderson tossed up an airball
3-point attempt that could have cut the lead to one, and Adrien
missed one of two free throws in the final 30 seconds.
But Mason gave UConn a chance to win with poor free-throw
shooting. Lewis missed three attempts in the final 15 seconds -- the
last two with 6.1 seconds to go -- giving the Huskies a final
possession to tie or win. Denham Brown, who made the reverse layup
at the regulation buzzer to send the game to overtime, was off the
mark from the left wing with a potential game-winning 3-pointer at
Throughout the game, chants of "G-M-U" and "Let's Go Mason!"
reverberated off the ceiling of the Verizon Center. Green and gold,
as expected, were the dominant colors, and the building reached a
new-level din of enthusiasm when Skinn made a 3-pointer to tie the
game at 21 in the first half.
UConn started 7-for-10 from the field yet couldn't pull away
from the tenacious Patriots, who somehow managed to pull down and
chase rebounds despite their height disadvantage. When the Huskies
went cold, missing seven straight field goals, George Mason pulled
even. The second of back-to-back steals by Skinn led to two free
throws by Thomas that put the Patriots ahead 29-28, their only lead
of the first half.
But the Huskies responded with a 15-2 run. Their lead was 12
when George Mason got a boost just before halftime -- Campbell's
three-point play with less than one second remaining cut the
deficit to single digits, 43-34, at the break.
The Patriots pulled within one early in the second half with an
8-0 run. Campbell hit a 3-pointer after a gritty offensive rebound
by Thomas, and Skinn made a driving layup despite losing control of
the ball and changing hands in mid-air. Then, with 12:31 to play,
Campbell hit another 3-pointer that tied the game at 49. The next
milestone came with 11:09 remaining, when Butler sank another 3 to
give Mason a 52-51 lead.
For the next six minutes, the teams punched and counterpunched,
with neither leading by more than two until Skinn's 3-pointer with
five minutes to go put Mason ahead 67-63. Marcus Williams' steal
and three-point play cut Mason's lead to 71-70 with 47 seconds
remaining, and the Patriots went 2-of-5 from the foul line in the
final minute to give UConn the chance to send the game to overtime
on Brown's buzzer-beating layup.
But Mason didn't wilt in the overtime, making Butler's Final
Four prediction come true, a prediction he brashly made when he was
recruited to George Mason.
"I think I was joking when I said that," Butler said. "I
started dreaming when I got to college. It shows you anything can