Patriots Top Themselves With Upset of Tar Heels

Lamar Butler
Lamar Butler celebrates the Patriots' stunning victory over North Carolina. Next up for George Mason is Wichita State, a team it beat earlier this year, 70-67, on the road. (Matt Sullivan - Reuters)
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio, March 19 -- What they had done was so stunning and so thrilling, that afterward it was almost too much to comprehend. By the time the players on the George Mason men's basketball team finished celebrating their 65-60 victory over North Carolina in an NCAA tournament second-round game on the University of Dayton Arena court and made their way back into their locker room, it was impossible to articulate just what they accomplished.

"Man, I'm speechless," sophomore Folarin Campbell said. "I'm still in shock right now."

Two days after the 11th-seeded Patriots earned their first tournament victory, they won their second, beating the defending national champions in the process. George Mason (25-7), which some felt did not deserve its at-large berth in the field of 65, is in the round of 16 for the first time in team history. And now the Patriots get to face seventh-seeded Wichita State -- a team they have beaten this year -- in a Washington Region semifinal on Friday at Verizon Center.

"They can't deny us a spot now," said senior Lamar Butler, who scored a team-high 18 points. "We showed ourselves against Michigan State. Now what do they have to say? We beat the third seed, the defending national champions. We earned our way."

Indeed, George Mason, from the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association, deserves its place in the final 16. The Patriots outplayed Michigan State, a team that returned four starters from last year's Final Four squad, on Friday night, and then came back to beat third-seeded North Carolina (23-8), the ACC's second place team and the 10th-ranked team in the country.

"I read something in the paper today," said Jim Larranaga, who is in his ninth season as George Mason's coach. "I'm not sure who said it, but they said, 'In this tournament, there are no upsets. There are just good teams, playing hard, playing well.' I would like to think that's true because the college game has changed dramatically over the years. Quite frankly, there is a lot of parity in the country right now."

On Sunday, the Patriots, who rely heavily on four juniors and seniors, never got flustered -- not when they fell behind 16-2 less than five minutes into the game, not when the Tar Heels made two three-pointers to close the gap in the final 35 seconds. Instead, it was the young North Carolina players who made costly mistakes (12 second-half turnovers).

George Mason held the Tar Heels to just 35.9 percent shooting for the game, occasionally using a 1-2-2 zone -- a defense it had begun practicing only a few weeks ago -- to change the tempo of the game. The Patriots' front court of sophomore Will Thomas (eight points) and senior Jai Lewis (nine points) did a terrific job of shutting down North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, the nation's top freshman.

Thomas and Lewis tried to make it difficult for the Tar Heels to get the ball to the 6-foot-9 Hansbrough, and then when he did get the ball, they tried to contest his shots. Hansbrough finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, but only two of those points came in the second half.

"They've been amazing all year, shutting big men down," Butler said of Lewis and Thomas. "I kind of knew that Hansbrough was in for a rough night. Those guys, their post defense was excellent. In practice, we don't get any layups against them."

George Mason dug itself an early hole. The Tar Heels made six of their first seven shots -- three of them were easy layups or dunks -- and led 13-2 after barely three minutes. When David Noel (22 points) drained a three-pointer from the right side, North Carolina was up 16-2 with 15 minutes 28 seconds left in the half.

But the Patriots, as they did throughout their stay in Dayton, didn't panic. Senior guard Tony Skinn banked in a three-pointer from the top of the key -- his first shot of the tournament (he was suspended for the Michigan State game) -- and that seemed to lift the Patriots. They still trailed 27-20 at halftime, but were lucky that the deficit wasn't much larger considering their offensive struggles. George Mason, which made nearly 60 percent of its shots on Friday, missed easy shots inside, had six shots swatted away by the Tar Heels, and shot only 28.1 percent (9 for 32).

"Our coach settled us down and coming into the second half, he told us it was a new game, it was 0-0," said Campbell, who scored 15 points. "We came out [of the locker room] a little earlier than we usually do, and he told us to warm up like it's a new game. That's what we did We didn't feel like we were out of the game. It's a 40-minute game, and basketball is made of runs. We knew we had a run in us."

George Mason's run came in the first two and a half minutes of the second half, and it changed the game. The Patriots forced four straight turnovers by the Tar Heels and scored eight straight points -- each basket coming from a different player. Campbell's steal and fast-break layup gave George Mason its first lead of the game, 28-27, with 17:49 to play.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company