George Mason continues improbable journey

Jared Trexler, Contributing TSN Editor

From the end of the Bench Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A bonfire of brackets are burning in the heart of Fairfax, Virginia as we speak. And no one cares.

In a game indicative of the human spirit with an outcome that brought a nation to its feet, a proud group of Patriots from George Mason University stunned top-seeded and national power UConn, 86-84, in overtime on Sunday to become the first 11th seed to reach the Final Four since LSU in 1986.

The game, like so many in sports, was bigger than itself. People with hopes and ambitions nationwide will feel rejuvenated. The lottery will see an increase in ticket sales.

Dreams can come true.

There is really no other way to explain how a core group of five Maryland high school products returned within a commuter trip of home to reach college basketball's pinnacle.

The whole week was played with house money. Guard Lamar Butler asked after media day prior to the Sweet 16 victory over Wichita State if he could keep the name plate used to identify a player to the press.

George Mason
George Mason stunned top-seeded and national power UConn, 86-84, in overtime to become the first 11th seed to reach the Final Four since LSU in 1986.
Head coach Jim Larranaga picked up doughnuts on cable television. Before the Big Dance began, the Bronx, New York native ordered the sugar-coated sweets in relative obscurity.

Larranaga's high-pitched whistle became a national communication device. Guard Tony Skinn's below-the-belt punch to a Hofstra player in a Colonial Athletic Association Tournament semifinal game turned from a costly blow to a story about second chances.

Skinn sat right next to his head coach on Selection Sunday, hoping his transgression hadn't cost his team a place in the NCAA Tournament. When George Mason's name was called as a part of the Washington, D.C. bracket, Skinn breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Almost two weeks later and with three victories already in hand, Skinn stood during Sunday's pre-game shootaround with a ball pressed against his left side. He wasn't shooting or dribbling, just looking around at the sea of green and gold that had invaded the Verizon Center. He smiled, then dribbled twice and released a jumper. Nothing but net.

The Patriots used the raw emotion of the experience and a vocal sixth man to hang with the vaunted Huskies for the half's first 17 minutes, exhibiting the characteristics that had turned the controversial at-large selection into a mid-major darling.

Solid fundamental basketball highlighted by textbook screening on the offensive end and tenacious ball pressure on the defensive side pushed George Mason to a 29-28 lead with just over three minutes remaining in the opening half.

Will Thomas drained two free throws to give the Patriots that slight edge, but how he got to the foul line typified a team-first approach.

Thomas received the ball on the left block off a secondary break and went up strong before being fouled hard to the floor by UConn forward Hilton Armstrong. Three of Thomas' teammates sprinted to their fallen forward, picking him up off the deck without a second thought.

The Huskies seemingly stated their superiority late in the half, using a 15-2 spurt to grab a 43-31 edge.

But every time America thought George Mason was going away, Jai Lewis used his wide frame in the paint to convert a much-needed field goal or Folarin Campbell buried a long-distance shot.

Stephen Ames had the Players Championship on cruise control. Baseball was still playing meaningless games. The laundry could wait.

A story for the ages was in progress.

The lead and the momentum went back and forth over the game's final few minutes. With the Patriots holding a 71-67 lead, UConn point guard Marcus Williams sliced down the middle of the lane and banked in a shot while being fouled. The southpaw's free throw capped the three-point play with 47.1 ticks remaining.

Lewis then made 1-of-2 from the stripe and the exuberant Butler gathered a rebound off a UConn miss with 17.6 seconds left, running toward coach Larranga like a giddy youngster.

Butler next made a pair from the free throw line to push the edge to 74-70. It was then that a partisan-Patriot crowd began to think the impossible might happen.

UConn dashed those hopes for the time being, as Williams darted to the basket for a quick score. Then, after Skinn missed the front end of a one-and-one, Denham Brown slashed along the left baseline and converted a reserve layup to force overtime.

The late-game heroics, the second final-minute comeback to force overtime by the Huskies in as many games, only delayed the inevitable.

For sometimes fate overwhelms all else. When Campbell's rain-making fadeaway left his hand with about 1:15 to play in the extra session, it looked like a last-second heave to beat the shot clock.

The ball reached its apex at the doorstep of Heaven, and when it began its descent it had no where to go but through the net. 84-80 Patriots.

That's fate. That's destiny. But make no mistake about it, that's also talent.

"It's not about who we play or where we play," preached Larranaga. "It's about how we play."

Just over one minute and a Brown missed three at the buzzer later, Thomas and Skinn sprinted toward family. Larranaga almost on cue turned around and pointed his finger at the crowd, just like he had after the previous three victories.

The cameras fixed on Butler, who took in the NCAA Tournament's atmosphere more than any player in recent memory.

"When that final buzzer went off, that was just pure joy, indescribable joy," said Butler. "It just overwhelmed me. I looked at my father, he was smiling, crying. My mother, they were all crying. It was like a dream come true. I used to dream about that when I was a little kid, in front of my hometown, home fans, my family, it's indescribable."

Any sports fan who reads that statement gets chills. Any sports fan who understands the journey might get lost in it.

After defeating Michigan State, people called the Patriots this year's Hampton. Then, after disposing of North Carolina, they became this year's Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A victory over Wichita State cemented this CAA team as a 2006 version of Kent State. Now, people are ready to label George Mason as the closest resemblance to Larry Bird's 1979 Indiana State Sycamores.

The comparisons are unfair. This George Mason squad is a modern-day fairy tale, battling pre-tournament distractions and defeating three power conference opponents on its way to Indianapolis.

Martin Scorsese couldn't have produced a better script. One of the lead directors, Skinn, won't argue with how the story has played out.

"I think we'll go stick to the script going into whoever we play," said Skinn. "We don't mind being the Cinderella."

It's a story of human hope. A story of good things happening to great people. A story that makes grown men cry.

Pass the Kleenex.

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