They Just Got in, Now They're Headed for Indy

By the time tournament officials finally shooed George Mason's deliriously happy players toward their locker room late Sunday afternoon, the orange iron rims were naked, their netted nylon skirts long since snipped and divided into precious keepsakes.

Senior forward Jai Lewis, the 275-pound bruiser who's as wide as a baseline, wore part of one as a necklace. Senior guard Tony Skinn stuffed a white strand under the collar of his just-issued Final Four cap. And senior guard Lamar Butler already had plans for his two pieces of net.

"One I'm going to keep in my pocket wherever I go," Butler said. "One I frame and keep it on my wall."

If ever a game deserved to be enclosed in glass, this was it. George Mason's 86-84 overtime victory against Connecticut in the regional final is more than an upset, it's history. It belongs on the Mount Rushmore of March Madness not simply because the 11th-seeded Patriots, who almost didn't get into the NCAA Tournament, beat a top-seeded UConn team stocked with future NBAers, but because of the quality of their win.

This was no fluke. It wasn't decided by the echoes of a referee's whistle, a freak injury, a twist of fate. The Patriots were the better team Sunday. And if UConn and George Mason played 10 more times, you might be surprised by how often GMU would find itself on the right side of the scoreboard.

Mighty Connecticut of the mighty Big East Conference didn't try to give this one away, as it did Friday night against Washington, when it committed about a thousand turnovers. UConn simply got beat by a team that two Sundays ago was huddled in a room hoping -- no, praying -- that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee would extend the Patriots one of those 34 at-large bids.

"We thought we were out," said sophomore forward Will Thomas, who had more rebounds (12) than anyone else on the Verizon Center floor Sunday. "When they announced us as an 11 seed in the D.C. bracket, we were ecstatic."

You should have seen them after beating UConn. So overcome with emotion was Thomas, that he literally couldn't speak for several moments. Sophomore swingman Folarin Campbell did an Adam Morrison at game's end and collapsed to the ground. You needed a towel boy to wipe down the tear puddles.

"Indescribable joy," Butler said.

It was Butler, when he signed with George Mason a little more than four years ago, who vowed that he would one day lead GMU to a Final Four. Now the Patriots are on their way to Indianapolis.

"I think I was joking when I said that," he said.

Now look at them. The Patriots are more than bracket busters, they're giant-killers, disposing of Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn during what the gracious Huskies coach Jim Calhoun called GMU's "magic carpet ride."

The Patriots were intimidated by nothing. Not by their opponents' hoops pedigree. Not by their surroundings. Not by the weight of the moment. This is what happens when you're led by a carefree 56-year-old coach who doesn't equate college basketball with the Battle of Dunkirk.

Jim Larranaga, whose name or photo is nowhere to be found on George Mason's regular-season or postseason media guides, is the guy responsible for this Al Michaels mini-miracle. He recited the words of famed orator William Jennings Bryan to his team, telling his players, "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it's a matter of choice." And they bought it.

He told them that the No. 11, as in their seed, was irrelevant. And they bought it.

He told them, actually ordered them, to have fun. And they did.

Minutes before they took the court to face America's office pool favorite to win it all, Larranaga reminded his players they were from the CAA -- not the Colonial Athletic Association, but from the "Connecticut Assassins Association." And sure enough, by afternoon's end UConn was resting with a white lilly on its chest, its Final Four hopes deader than William Jennings himself.

During nearly every timeout, even when UConn bullied its way into overtime and almost everyone in the building figured the Huskies would at last take control, Larranaga repeated the acronym: "C-A-A ... C-A-A." A week earlier, as they prepared to face 2005 NCAA champion North Carolina, Larranaga had told his team, "They're Superman, we're kryptonite." The man deserves an honorary degree in psychology.

You don't explain this upset as much as you savor it (UConn staff, players, and fans excepted). The Patriots outrebounded the Huskies' hellacious front line. They hit 9 of 18 treys. They wore down UConn star point guard Marcus Williams.

Most of all, they ignored the pressure. "We didn't fear them," Thomas said.

Fear them? Are you kidding? Late in overtime, with GMU clinging to the lead, Skinn began chirping playfully at UConn's Rashad Anderson. "Still think y'all are going to Indianapolis?" he said to the Huskies guard.

As the final buzzer sounded, Larranaga made a beeline for the other side of the court and waited for his wife of 35 years, Liz, to make her way down from her seat. That's when they embraced and Larranaga said into her ear, "I love you."

Meanwhile, UConn's players quietly left the floor, with the exception of Anderson, who peeled back to congratulate the George Mason coach.

Ladders were positioned under each basket and the snipping began. Liz Larranaga gazed at the scene in amazement.

"It's what's good in sports," she said.

So now George Mason does a Star Trek and goes where no Patriot has ever gone before: to the Final Four, where they'll face Florida in the national semis next Saturday. A No. 11 seed against the No. 3 Florida Gators, as if that matters anymore.

"I guess anything can happen," Butler said.

Lamar, it already has.