The Story Everybody Wanted, but Not Quite the Ending

Patriots senior Lamar Butler walks to the locker room after George Mason was eliminated by Florida.
Patriots senior Lamar Butler walks to the locker room after George Mason was eliminated by Florida. "Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us," Butler said. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Wise
Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS Jim Larranaga sent the five substitutes in with 47 seconds left. These were players who don't play the big minutes for George Mason, the kids the coach put in more for posterity's sake than anything that would affect the outcome of a national semifinal.

He wanted them to experience the end of the most shocking, small-program run in NCAA tournament history:

Florida 73, Hickory High 58.

Dies the season. Dies the dream to play for the national championship Monday night. The best little team you never saw until March finally went down to a bigger, talented, tradition-steeped powerhouse. It took three weeks before someone could do in the Cinderella Men.

"Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us," said Lamar Butler, the senior guard who, for once in a month, was more somber than smiling after Saturday night's loss at the RCA Dome. "This is history. We changed the face of college basketball."

To a nation starved for a "Hoosiers" ending, Lee Humphrey's three three-pointers to begin the second half were just a buzz-kill -- a good, bedtime tale gone awry. Snow White, backhanded by Sleepy. Or 101 Dalmatians, stuck in the D.C. Animal Shelter. Nemo, served a la carte at Sushi Taro. You thought, what kind of ending was this for college basketball's best yarn?

But that's missing the long view.

See, Mason became less of a team than an ideal in March, the notion that five kids from anywhere can call "Next" and hold the court against anyone at any time. Butler, Folarin Campbell, Jai Lewis and their teammates were not a part of March Madness as much as they were a blueprint for How to See Yourself as a Powerhouse and Not a Mid-Major Pushover.

"We never saw ourselves as the underdog," Butler said. "That's the thing everybody got wrong; we saw everybody we beat as being in trouble once they faced us."

The whole month of Mason bordered on fantasy, and there was a part of the country that must have awoke this morning and thought CBS was pulling the ultimate April Fools' gag.

In the days leading up to Selection Sunday, most every national college hoop analyst decried the notion of the Patriots even getting in -- especially after Hofstra beat them twice in the season's final weeks. Among the lot that felt Mason did not belong among the 65-team field: ESPN's Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Dick Vitale.

Yet there was Bilas on Saturday morning, running a TV demonstration with faux players, breaking down -- get this -- George Mason's offense. Digger and Dickie V. were contorting their faces, saying what they would say in a pregame speech to Mason's players if they were their coach. Bilas has said often this week Mason's run is really "lightning in a bottle," and all the factors fell into place for such magic and chemistry to unfold game after game.

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