WASHINGTON - George Mason is no longer the cute little underdog. The Patriots, by golly, are going to the Final Four.
The suburban commuter school from Fairfax, Va., beat top-seeded Connecticut 86-84 in overtime Sunday in the Washington Regional final, ending the stranglehold that big-time programs have enjoyed for 27 years in college basketball's biggest showcase.
They lacked in size, athleticism and history relative to their opponent, but the 11th-seeded Patriots made up for it with tenacity.
Buoyed by a partisan crowd and playing some 20 miles from their campus, George Mason rallied after trailing by 12 late in the first half and nine early in the second. They hit six straight 3-pointers in the second half, shot 5-for-6 in overtime and outrebounded UConn 37-34 even though the Huskies have three starters taller than any of the Patriots' frontcourt players.
The Patriots became the second double-digit seed to make the Final Four, matching LSU's run, also as an 11th seed, in 1986. The Colonial Athletic Association team is the first true outsider to crash the Final Four since Penn and Indiana State both got there in 1979. The Patriots, whose at-large selection was roundly criticized, celebrated after the final horn by standing on the press row table and waving their shirts to their fans.
Patriots guard Tony Skinn said coach Jim Larranaga fired up his players by telling them that UConn's players didn't even know which conference George Mason is in.
"That's a little bit of disrespect," Skinn said. "Coach told us the CAA stands for 'Connecticut Assassin Association.'"
Larranaga led one of the school's familiar chants, yelling "George!" to the crowd's "Mason!" as he waited his turn to cut down the net. Then he climbed the ladder and worked the scissors with a smile, then waved the net high in the air to more cheers before slipping the nylon around his neck.
"I feel so good, through my own sadness, for Jim Larranaga," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Playing at that level is not easy. I can only imagine the feeling they must have on that campus, in that locker room.... It's something they probably never imagined. We've imagined it, and we've done it. They could never have imagined it."
All five Mason starters finished in double figures. Jai Lewis had 20, and Lamar Butler and Will Thomas each scored 19. Larranaga's team kept the same five players in the game from the 10:37 mark of regulation to the very end of overtime. Butler was chosen as the most outstanding player of the regional, and he and his father were in tears as they hugged at length on the court after the game.
George Mason (27-7), having by far the best season in school history, had never won an NCAA tournament game until it beat half of last year's Final Four - Michigan State and No. 3 seed North Carolina - back-to-back in the first two rounds. Now it can say it has beaten the last two national champions - Connecticut and North Carolina.
Rudy Gay scored 20, and Jeff Adrien had a career-high 17 points for Connecticut (30-4), which never could put together a complete game in the tournament. The Huskies had to rally from double-digit second-half deficits to beat Albany and Washington and barely held off Kentucky.
Folarin Campbell's tough baseline fadeaway gave the Patriots an 84-80 lead in overtime, and UConn suddenly looked like a rattled underdog from a mid-major. Rashad Anderson tossed up an airball 3-point attempt that could have cut the lead to one, and Adrien missed one of two free throws in the final 30 seconds.
But Mason gave UConn a chance to win with poor free-throw shooting. Lewis missed three attempts in the final 15 seconds - the last two with 6.1 seconds to go - giving the Huskies a final possession to tie or win. Denham Brown, who made the reverse layup at the regulation buzzer to send the game to overtime, was off the mark from the left wing with a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Throughout the game, chants of "G-M-U" and "Let's Go Mason!" reverberated off the ceiling of the Verizon Center. Green and gold, as expected, were the dominant colors, and the building reached a new-level din of enthusiasm when Skinn made a 3-pointer to tie the game at 21 in the first half.
The pregame mannerisms of the coaches also reflected the different state of the two programs. Larranaga looked like someone running for mayor, shaking hands with everyone and high-fiving the cheerleader's pompoms, while UConn's all-business Calhoun stood with folded arms and an expression that suggested a man fighting stomach cramps.
UConn started 7-for-10 from the field yet couldn't pull away from the tenacious Patriots, who somehow managed to pull down and chase rebounds despite their height disadvantage. When the Huskies went cold, missing seven straight field goals, George Mason pulled even. The second of back-to-back steals by Skinn led to two free throws by Thomas that put the Patriots ahead 29-28, their only lead of the first half.
But the Huskies responded with a 15-2 run, including four 3-pointers from four players over the final three minutes of the first half. The lead was 12 when George Mason got a boost just before halftime - Campbell's three-point play with less than one second remaining cut the deficit to single digits, 43-34, at the break.
Mason outrebounded UConn 16-15 in the half, but the Huskies shot 57 percent, with Adrien going 5-for-5 for 10 points.
The Patriots pulled within one early in the second half with an 8-0 run. Campbell hit a 3-pointer after a gritty offensive rebound by Thomas, and Skinn made a driving layup despite losing control of the ball and changing hands in mid-air. Then, with 12:31 to play, Campbell hit another 3-pointer that tied the game at 49. The next milestone came with 11:09 remaining, when Butler sank another 3 to give Mason a 52-51 lead.
For the next six minutes, the teams punched and counterpunched, with neither leading by more than two until Skinn's 3-pointer with five minutes to go put Mason ahead 67-63. Marcus Williams' steal and three-point play cut Mason's lead to 71-70 with 47 seconds remaining, and the Patriots went 2-of-5 from the foul line in the final minute to give UConn the chance to send the game to overtime on Brown's buzzer-beating layup.
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