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No. 11 a winning ticket for George Mason

WashPost: Cinderella Patriots have chance at history, improbable Final Four berth
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The round of 16 is a defining junction in the NCAA tournament, the point at which the Little Teams That Could Just Can't Anymore. With a very few exceptions the past three decades, it's a mausoleum for giant-killers. Wisconsin-Milwaukee was a nice little story last year until Illinois came along and ruined the ride. Nevada shocked the field in 2004 before Georgia Tech ended its pixie-dust run.

You hear about these kids who never had Roy Williams or Tubby Smith visit their living rooms at 17 years old, get to know them and their resilient stories for a minute, and then it's over.

Back to class. Back to reality.

Within days, they usually admit they had U-Conn. and Duke in their bracket, too. Their one shining moment gets encapsulated in two celluloid seconds after the national champion is crowned, and the people at home blurt, "That Valpo kid's shot was so clutch" or "Damn, Southern Illinois could play," and Hoops Nation moves on, toward the final scene of some lottery pick from Syracuse or North Carolina cutting nylon and smiling.

Except with less than 10 days left in the college basketball season, that perma-grin kid was Lamar Butler last night, the George Mason senior guard who held up eight fingers for all of America and the throaty roar of a public university in Fairfax to see.

Lamar's father owns a sporting goods store in Prince George's County. Coached his high school team at Oxon Hill in Fort Washington. It's a good tale, and it's around for at least another two days because of what Butler and his local-kids-make-good teammates did to Wichita State for most of 40 minutes.

George Mason did not come to Verizon Center to die Friday night. They came to thrive and, in the final minutes, survive the Shockers in a casting call for Cinderella that went on for two weeks.

Now, with essentially a home against top-seeded U-Conn. on Sunday, the Patriots can become the first 11th-seeded team to reach the Final Four since LSU in 1986.

A wildly improbable victory over either team -- in this increasingly wildly improbable season of victories over Michigan State, North Carolina and now seventh-seeded Wichita State -- puts Mason and its irrepressible coach, Jim Larranaga, in the company of that amazing 1979 Penn team that somehow played in that seminal Final Four featuring Magic and Bird.

Once again, this bears repeating, George Mason -- George Mason! -- is playing in a regional final.

In advancing this far, Mason joined select company on Friday night. Gonzaga's 1999 team, before the Zags had a national player of the year hopeful. David Robinson's 1986 Navy team. Kent State in 2002. Tulsa in 2000. That's it.

Butler was joined by a starting cast of Maryland locals -- Tony Skinn from Takoma Park, big Jai Lewis from Aberdeen, Will Thomas and his radar, left-handed jump hook from Baltimore and Silver Spring's own Folarin Campbell.

It was not just the starters.

It was Gabe Norwood, the junior swingman, rejecting two shots in the final three minutes, making his teammates better, slowing the ball up instead of putting his head down and doing something foolish. It was Jordan Carter, a stubby reserve guard who hit a stupendous three-point shot with the Shockers closing within 10 points in the final eight minutes.

With all due respect to Maryland and even George Washington, wouldn't Gary Williams or even Karl Hobbs love to have these kids today? Jim Calhoun would love to have these kids today.

Where the Patriots, their fan base and that androgynous-looking, green furry mascot Gunston go from here, who knows? Yet on a night when this loosey-goosey bunch of kids could have buckled like Gonzaga, Duke and West Virginia on Thursday night, George Mason found its game and its poise late to hold off the Shockers and make school history.

Again.

Mason lived well early. The Patriots didn't pick up their first foul until four minutes remained in the half. One of Campbell's three three-pointers bounced high off the front of the rim and in the opening minutes. Skinn released a pretty layup in the lane that fell through, a layup taken after the shot clock appeared to expire.

Lewis, Mason's 6-foot-7, 275-pound (before breakfast) senior forward, got off the ground. Lewis, whose vertical leap is measured with his Mason library card, suddenly rose and rejected a layup by Wichita State's P.J. Couisnard at the outset of the first half.

Calls. Bounces. Their barge of a big man, finding his lift.

By halftime, the university band was playing Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer." The Verizon Center was shaking, the Patriots were dropping in shots from all over the perimeter and about to go where no small school has been for a while.

Larranaga said afterward that his kids have been playing like this all season, that the only reason CBS and the rest of America does not know about them is because they haven't bothered to come to see them play.

So Mason came to them, in the round of 16. And now the round of eight.

George Mason did not come to die here last night.