By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006
Jim Larranaga couldn't get the theme song from "Mission: Impossible" out of his head. He pounded its rhythms on the breakfast table yesterday morning. He hummed it during the George Mason basketball team's bus ride from Northern Virginia to downtown Washington. He sang it during a pregame meeting at Verizon Center.
" That's what that was?" George Mason senior guard Lamar Butler said after the Patriots had accomplished the impossible, an 86-84 win over top-seeded Connecticut and a spot in the Final Four. "That was the worst impression ever. We were like, 'What song is that?' Nobody knew."
It showed. When they took the floor against a team favored to win the national championship, the Patriots radiated carefree confidence. When they faced a three-point barrage and a double-digit deficit just before halftime, the Patriots never wavered, opening the second half with a 15-6 run to set up a thrilling conclusion. When the Patriots blew a golden opportunity to clinch their first Final Four berth in the final seconds of regulation, they quickly regrouped in an equally dramatic overtime session.
As the last second of those extra five minutes expired, Connecticut guard Denham Brown's three-point attempt glanced off the rim, and Larranaga's team had one of the most stunning victories in college basketball history. The Patriots, who had never won an NCAA tournament game before 10 days ago, will face Florida on Saturday night in Indianapolis. They are two wins away from a national championship.
"Surprised?" said George Mason guard Folarin Campbell during a postgame celebration thick with hugs and tears. "Surprised at what?"
Indeed, the Patriots (27-7) said this was the outcome they expected, despite the fact that their opponents entered the game with 39 more NCAA tournament victories and despite the fact that no 11th seed had advanced to the Final Four in 20 years.
"We didn't feel it was impossible," Butler said. "We felt we could win. We all did. That's why we were so loose. We expected to win."
That confidence showed again and again during a well-executed game that featured nine second-half lead changes. Connecticut's starting lineup was a combined foot-and-a-half taller than George Mason's. But the Patriots' undersized front-court duo of Will Thomas and Jai Lewis had 39 points and 19 rebounds. Connecticut counterparts Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong had 14 points and nine rebounds.
The interior success led to open space on the perimeter, and the Patriots made better than 61 percent of their shots after halftime.
"They had a lot of heart," Huskies forward Rudy Gay said. "That's all that really matters when you're playing a game like this."
There were plenty of opportunities for the Patriots to buckle. They led by four with 18 seconds left in regulation. Then Marcus Williams hit a driving leaner, and Tony Skinn missed the front end of a one-and-one with six seconds left. Williams dribbled up the court and found Brown on the left wing, whose reverse layup bounced three times on the rim before falling through. A crowd that was overwhelmingly pro-George Mason fell silent.
With an unprecedented opportunity slipping away, players said the huddle remained upbeat -- "We weren't trying to go home," Gabe Norwood said -- and Larranaga repeated one of his March mantras.
"I told them, 'There's no place on earth I'd rather be than here with you guys,' " he recalled later. " 'Now we have to beat them in a five-minute game.' "
They did, thanks to one clutch shot after another. Thomas hit a jump hook in the lane. Butler, the region's most outstanding player, banked a driving shot off the backboard. Lewis scored off an inbounds play. Thomas scored again; the 6-foot-7 sophomore, who is now 8-0 in his high school and college career against Gay, finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Then Campbell made perhaps the game's biggest basket, a fadeaway baseline jump shot over Gay as the shot clock was winding down.
That gave George Mason a four-point lead. But poor free throw shooting kept Connecticut in the game, and after Lewis missed two free throws with 6.1 seconds left the Huskies had another chance to tie or win. Brown rebounded the ball, dribbled the length of the court and pulled up for a three-point attempt.
"I thought that Denham's shot was going to go in; there was no doubt in my mind," said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, whose team had survived a scare against Washington Friday night by hitting a tying three-pointer at the regulation buzzer. "But it didn't."
And so the celebration began. Larranaga's wife, Liz, sprinted down to the court and kissed her husband. Their son Jon, a former George Mason player, walked around in a daze. "Are you kidding me?" he said. "Are you kidding me?"
Associate Athletic Director Jay Marsh, another former Patriot, hugged Campbell. Campbell pointed to Gunston, the school's mascot. Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager began crying. He hugged Athletic Director Tom O'Connor. O'Connor hugged Skinn. O'Connor hugged university president Alan G. Merten.
Merten and his wife were scheduled to leave for a Florida vacation this week. After the game, he canceled those plans and prepared for another week of craziness.
"I'm into crazy," Merten said as players whooped and screamed. "Crazy is one of my favorite things."