Just before the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga warned his team that the Patriots had detractors who did not want them in the Big Dance. He also reminded them that they had good reason to be in the field of 65 and that if they got in, it would be a chance to show the world that they belonged.
"And then I said when opportunity knocks, answer the door," Larranaga said.
George Mason answered emphatically Sunday, crashing the Sweet 16 party in the Washington, D.C., Regional. The 11th-seeded Patriots shut down No. 3 North Carolina in the second half for a 65-60 upset at the University of Dayton Arena, earning their way to the tournament's second weekend for the first time.
The Patriots, whose at-large bid drew scorn from several analysts, will play the other Cinderella of the tournament, Wichita State, next weekend in Washington, just 18 miles from George Mason's campus in Fairfax, Va. The Patriots and Shockers actually met last month in Wichita, with George Mason pulling out a 70-67 win on a three-pointer by Tony Skinn with 10.8 seconds left.
"Coach told us when we got into the tournament that teams like that -- Michigan State, North Carolina -- they are supposed to beat us," said Skinn, who missed the Patriots' first-round win over the Spartans as he served a suspension for punching Hofstra's Loren Stokes in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. "With that on them, that is a lot of pressure. They have to make all the shots. The pressure is on them to do that."
The young Tar Heels -- who hardly could be called defending champions without last year's top seven scorers -- simply could not do it while George Mason's veterans did. Lamar Butler led the way with 18 points, Folarin Campbell added 15 and Skinn had 13, including four free throws in the final 13 seconds to ice the game.
After scoring 16 of the game's first 18 points and holding a seven-point halftime lead, the Tar Heels turned the ball over nine times and shot just 37 percent in the second half. George Mason scored the first eight points after intermission to take the lead and controlled the action most of the rest of the way. The last time North Carolina drew even came with 3:01 to play on a three-pointer by David Noel, who had 22 points for the Tar Heels.
On the next possession, Butler drew a foul and sank both free throws to put the Patriots ahead to stay.
"I called for a press, but we did a bad job with it and it was the wrong call on my part," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "We go down and foul a guy and we are never able to get the score tied after that. It hurts when you feel like you've not given your team the best chance to win."
Including Butler's pair, the Patriots (25-7) hit nine of 12 free throws in the final 2:52, making it impossible for North Carolina to catch up -- despite dramatic three-pointers by junior Wes Miller and freshman Bobby Frasor in the final 34 seconds.
While it's the first trip to the Sweet 16 for a CAA team since Richmond in 1988, the loss was hardly a surprise to Williams after he watched George Mason dismantle Michigan State, 75-65, on Friday.
"They played with great purpose and passion," Williams said. "I was scared to death of them, to be honest with you. In saying that, I still thought we were going to win the game. We've got them 16-2 and there are two seconds left on the shot clock and (Skinn) banks one in from the top of the key."
The Tar Heels used a quick tempo and were up by 14 points less than four minutes into the game when Skinn banked in that unlikely three-pointer to wake up the Patriots.
The Patriots used a zone defense, something they implemented last week, to slow down and trip up the Tar Heels (23-8). North Carolina scored just nine points in the final 16 minutes of the first half and the Patriots were set for the comeback.
"They are a young team and all season, they have struggled with turnovers," Butler said. "We wanted to force them into making some decisions."
Tyler Hansbrough, the Tar Heels' freshman center, made some bad ones and had his shots blocked or the ball stripped from his hands repeatedly. He finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and three turnovers.
"We tried a couple of really different things to try and stop them," said Williams, "just to see if we could find something. We couldn't."