Patriot Gains

The George Mason bench erupts after the biggest win in school history. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
The George Mason bench erupts after the biggest win in school history. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio, March 17 -- All of the stress and angst and hand-wringing that surrounded the George Mason men's basketball team on Selection Sunday seemed so far away as the buzzer sounded on its 75-65 upset of Michigan State in an NCAA first-round tournament game Friday night. The players on the 11th-seeded Patriots, who spent the week listening to outsiders complain that they did not deserve their at-large bid to the tournament, hugged and smiled and celebrated the biggest win in school history.

With the victory, its first in four trips to the tournament, George Mason (24-7) earned a date with North Carolina on Sunday afternoon.

"It's about time!" said fifth-year senior Lamar Butler, who was a senior at Oxon Hill High the last time George Mason played in the NCAA tournament (2001). "Coach [Jim Larranaga] had never won a tournament game, George Mason had never won -- there are so many thoughts going through my head. The CAA is starting to get the recognition they deserve. We're starting to get the recognition we deserve. We proved a lot of naysayers wrong."

Seed-wise, the Patriots' win didn't qualify as the biggest upset of the day; that honor was reserved for 14th-seeded Northwestern State's win over third-seeded Iowa. But it was significant in terms of what the two programs represented. On one side, there was sixth-seeded Michigan State, one of college basketball's haves: a member of a power conference that routinely receives several at-large bids. On the other, there was George Mason, one of the have-nots: a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, which had last received an at-large bid in 1986.

The Patriots, who lost in the semifinals of their conference tournament, were relieved to be in the field of 65, but at the same time, they also firmly believed they deserved to be there.

"I think we just came out and used that as motivation," said senior Jai Lewis, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. "We were number nine defensively in field goal percentage [in the country]. Our RPI was high. We won our conference. I think that's enough to let people know that we deserve it. And now we just beat Michigan State today."

They also did it with their second-leading scorer on the bench. Senior guard Tony Skinn was suspended for one game by Larranaga after he punched a Hofstra player in the groin toward the end of the Patriots' CAA semifinal loss. Skinn sat on the bench in a suit and cheered for his teammates, and the George Mason fans chanted his name in the final seconds. Butler wrapped Skinn in a huge hug once the final buzzer sounded.

The Patriots shot a sterling 59.2 percent and outrebounded the Spartans by a staggering 40-24 margin. They also got contributions from all parts of their team.

Junior Gabe Norwood started in Skinn's place and responded with seven points, four rebounds and two steals. He was part of a defensive effort that held the Spartans (22-12) to 39.4 percent shooting in the second half. Junior forward Will Thomas had 18 points and 14 rebounds and was especially important in the first half as George Mason built a 33-30 halftime lead.

Sophomore guard Folarin Campbell led George Mason with 21 points and seven rebounds, and was 8 for 8 (including 2 for 2 from beyond the arc) from the field. He also was charged with defending guard Shannon Brown, one of four Michigan State starters who played on last year's Final Four team. Brown finished with five points -- 12 under his average -- on 2-for-11 shooting.

"Me and Will got some early shots at the beginning of the game and we made most of them," said Campbell, who was a two-time All-Met at Springbrook. "If we can make shots at the beginning of the game it builds our confidence up. We just carried that confidence into the second half. We just shot well."

George Mason missed 11 of 21 free throws in the final 3:32, but it didn't matter, in part because Michigan State couldn't make a shot at the other end of the court.

The win was more than enough to validate both the Patriots and the CAA. Chants of "C-A-A! C-A-A!" rang through the University of Dayton Arena in the closing seconds.

"Most people don't get to see how good the CAA is, night in and night out," Larranaga said. "We know when we face opponents from the Big 12 or Big Ten, we're not in awe. We battled against each other and we're tested. We got voted into the coaches' top 25 for the first time in school's history. You don't do that if you're not very good."

ยท NORTH CAROLINA 69, MURRAY STATE 65: Underscoring how much the defending champion Tar Heels (23-7) have changed in a year: Four freshmen scored North Carolina's final 29 points. Tyler Hansbrough led the way with 24 overall, his 14th 20-point game -- a Carolina freshman record.

The 14th-seeded Racers (24-7) were trying to become the first team in 10 years to knock out a defending champion in the first round. The last champ to make such an early exit was UCLA, which was seeded fourth when it lost to Princeton, 43-41, in 1996.

More daunting, Ohio Valley Conference teams had lost 16 straight games in the tournament. Now make that 17 in a row.

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