'Magic Carpet Ride' Flies On

Folarin Campbell fires a three-pointer during second-half action against Wichita State. Campbell led the Patriots with 16 points. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
Folarin Campbell fires a three-pointer during second-half action against Wichita State. Campbell led the Patriots with 16 points. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

The last time George Mason's basketball team booked a gig in downtown Washington, the Patriots were the opening act for a pair of nationally known stars. It's been more than three months since the BB&T Classic, and in that brief time, this once-obscure group from Fairfax has undergone a stunning transformation.

Last night at Verizon Center, the Patriots were the featured attraction. And in front of a national television audience and a partisan green-and-gold-clad crowd, they delivered yet another virtuoso performance in a 63-55 victory over Wichita State.

A little more than a week ago, the Patriots had never won an NCAA tournament game. Tomorrow, they will return to Chinatown to play for a berth in the Final Four against top-seeded Connecticut.

"This is history for us," Coach Jim Larranaga said, seconds after dancing across the court in a giddy postgame celebration. "A magic carpet ride."

George Mason (26-7) became the first Colonial Athletic Association team to win three NCAA tournament games since Navy in 1986. The Patriots are just the fourth No. 11 seed to advance to a region final. They did so with one of the most intensely regional rosters in the country; all five starters last night were raised within a 90-minute drive of George Mason's campus. And they did so with the an oppressive defensive effort, holding seventh-seeded Wichita State to 31 percent shooting while contesting almost every shot.

There were only brief specks of drama. A 19-point George Mason lead shriveled to 10 with eight minutes left. But the Patriots scored five quick points to reenergize the home fans, and the lead was safe enough for the Patriots to survive a shaky free throw display over the final four minutes. After the buzzer, Gabe Norwood hopped deliriously as Lamar Butler extended eight fingers into the air, signifying the number of teams that would remain in the tournament at night's end.

"It sounds beautiful, man, it's beautiful music to my ears," guard Tony Skinn said. "Eight teams left in college basketball and George Mason is one of them."

Some analysts had wondered whether a game so close to home would prove a distraction for a team that had been deluged by ticket demands and interview requests all week. Others thought history would catch up with George Mason; 11th-seeded teams had a record of 3-7 in region semifinals before last night.

But if the Patriots had even a trace of nerves, it didn't show. An hour before the game, Butler and Jordan Carter stood on the court and pointed happily to the raucous George Mason student section. Tim Burns, Jai Lewis, Norwood and Butler then wandered into the stands to mingle with family and friends.

"I can't wait, man, I can't wait," Butler said, flashing his trademark smile. "I don't think they know what's coming."

An hour later, the senior guard's words seemed prophetic. The Patriots were customarily frenetic on defense in the opening moments; the burly Lewis nearly forced two turnovers, and Skinn had two steals in the first three minutes. Wichita State needed six possessions and more than three minutes to get on the scoreboard. Sean Ogirri launched a three-pointer midway through the first half that missed everything and bounced out of bounds.

The Patriots, on the other hand, were steady and efficient on offense. Forwards Lewis and Will Thomas have been the focal points this season, but last night the focus turned to the perimeter. By halftime, starting guards Skinn, Butler and Folarin Campbell had made 7 of 10 three-point attempts. All three finished with at least 14 points.

Wichita State (26-9) stayed in the game with size and grit, grabbing 17 offensive rebounds. The Shockers enjoyed a significant size advantage over the perpetually undersize Patriots, who used a four-guard lineup for one long second-half stretch.

But George Mason's perimeter defense canceled out the size deficiencies. P.J. Couisnard had scored 20 points in a second-round win over Tennessee; last night, he made 2 of 13 shots. Ogirri had made six three-pointers in a first-round victory over Seton Hall; last night, he missed all five of his attempts. As a team, Wichita State made 3 of 24. It was exactly the sort of effort that had George Mason ranked in the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage defense entering the tournament. Now, it has the Patriots on the verge of the Final Four.

"It's a new experience every day," Lewis said. "I just wake up every morning and realize we're in a different round."

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