By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006
Jai Lewis hung the shreds of what remained of the basketball net around his thick neck. Lamar Butler, flashing a smile as wide as he is tall, tucked the string he had clipped from the net under the bill of his cap. Coach Jim Larranaga, 56, shimmied into a freshly printed T-shirt emblazoned with "Washington, D.C. Regional Champions," while delirious George Mason fans, their voices raw from screaming, snapped photos of the wild celebration with digital cameras and cellphones.
All of the detritus, no doubt, will be preserved for decades to come as mementos of the greatest day of their lives: The day the school in Fairfax pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history by toppling top-seeded Connecticut, a two-time national champion, to earn a trip to the NCAA men's basketball tournament's Final Four.
The Patriots, the team with a starting five from the Maryland suburbs that most pundits didn't think deserved a spot in the 65-team tournament, couldn't have earned the victory in more thrilling fashion -- storming back from a nine-point deficit at halftime and finally win, in their own backyard, no less, 86-84.
As a result, the Patriots' magic carpet ride sails on to Indianapolis, where the 11th-seeded upstarts will face Florida, victors yesterday over No. 1 seed Villanova, this Saturday for the right to play for college basketball's national title. And no one on the team, nor anyone who was in the stands at sold-out Verizon Center on Sunday, is counting them out of bringing home a championship given their achievements to date.
In toppling Connecticut, the team most college basketball analysts predicted would win it all, George Mason became only the second team with a double-digit seed to advance to the Final Four, following Louisiana State, also an 11th seed, in 1986. The Patriots also became the first team to defeat the two previous national champions -- Connecticut and North Carolina -- en route to the tournament's final weekend. All of this would have been a stunning achievement for a basketball powerhouse, but it defied description for an undersized, overlooked squad from a school that had never won an NCAA tournament game until 10 days ago.
Larranaga, the affable coach whose playbook stresses the value of playing loose and having fun, had made a practice of celebrating huge wins this season by dancing, much to his team's amusement. Yesterday afternoon, when the scoreboard confirmed the result no one would have predicted, Larranaga's Patriots did just that -- breaking into wild, jerky, joyous dances on a stage that was hastily erected at midcourt in their honor as recipients of an NCAA tournament region championship.
"It was like a dream come true," said Butler, a senior guard, whose three-point shooting keyed the Patriots' second-half comeback. "I used to dream about that when I was a little kid, in front of my home town, home fans, my family. It's indescribable."
Connecticut entered the game with every possible advantage: A roster stocked with five NBA prospects and a half-dozen blue-chip recruits backing them up on the bench. George Mason started five players who stood four to six inches shorter than their Connecticut counterparts. But only one statistic was needed to convey the moral of the game that unfolded. Dwarfed by their opponents at every position, George Mason outrebounded Connecticut 37-34.
"They don't measure heart by inches," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said afterward. "They don't measure courage; they don't measure basketball instinct and intelligence. I tip my hat to their courage and to their conviction to staying with what they have, to the incredible coaching job that Jimmy [Larranaga] did and to everybody at George Mason University."
Patriots fans could hardly have done more to will their team to victory, showing up at the arena slathered in green-and-gold face paint, sporting garish green-and-gold wigs, armed with foam fingers and megaphones, and hoisting hand-lettered signs that read, "Goliath Meet David," "We Like This Patriot Act," and "Billy Packer How Do You like Us Now?" Packer, a CBS Sports college basketball analyst, had criticized the selection committee's decision to award George Mason a spot in the tournament.
But to be honest, even Patriot zealots didn't give the team much of a chance. Yesterday's region final against the toughest team in the tournament had the air of an inevitable loss; the best that could be hoped, it seemed, was for the Patriots to lose with dignity.
Even that was in doubt during the first half, which George Mason opened by missing its first four shots. Connecticut's pro-caliber players, meantime, swished one basket after another, whether left unguarded or draped with defenders.
The notoriously slow-starting Huskies took a 43-34 lead into halftime, so it was reasonable to assume the score would get downright embarrassing when they really started to play. But a different bunch of Patriots trotted onto the court for the second half, not remotely humbled by the deficit or by their dreadful shooting.
Larranaga had told them before the game that the acronym of their conference -- the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) -- actually stood for the Connecticut Assassin Association. At every lull in the action, he'd scream, "C-A-A!" And the players knew what he meant, laughing at the inside joke.
After tying the score at 49, the Patriots found themselves locked in a seesaw battle for the lead. Up 74-70 with 17 seconds remaining, Mason's unfathomable victory appeared in hand. But Connecticut got an easy basket to cut the margin to two. Then Huskies guard Denham Brown tossed up a desperate shot from under the basket as the clock expired, and the ball bounced three times along the rim before dropping in, knotting the score and forcing overtime.
Larranaga could have been furious over his players' defensive lapse in the final seconds. Instead, he called his players together and told them there wasn't any place he'd rather be at that moment than at Verizon Center, with them. Then he sent them out for one last game: This one, an overtime segment that lasted five minutes. This time, they won.
What followed was an ear-splitting scene of mayhem on the court and in the stands. At George Mason's campus in Fairfax, where more than 500 students had jammed into the student union to watch on TV, the scene was just as joyous.
Said Loren Parks, 19, "We just shocked the world!"