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Mason, Wichita carry torch

WASHINGTON -- Eight days ago, George Mason had never won an NCAA Tournament game and Wichita State hadn't won one since 1981. Sometime around 10 tonight, one of them will be a win away from the Final Four.

The Patriots and Shockers will carry the torch for mid-majors everywhere when they meet in a Washington Region semifinal in the Verizon Center. The winner will become the first mid-major to make the Elite Eight since Kent State got there in 2002 and will play Connecticut or Washington Sunday for the right to go to Indianapolis. No middie has hit the game's biggest stage since Penn and Indiana State in 1979.

"It's great for the Colonial [Athletic Association] and great for the Missouri Valley that we're in this situation," Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon said here Thursday. "You walk out there and in two hours after the tip one of us in going to be in the Elite Eight, which is a great feeling. It should be an evenly-matched game but I know we're going to have to play very well, especially in this environment."

While Wichita State is the No. 7 seed and George Mason is the No. 11, Mason will clearly have a huge advantage in fan support by playing the game just 22 miles from its campus in Fairfax, Va. The teams met Feb. 18 in a BracketBusters game in Wichita and Mason survived, 70-67, in the marquee victory that probably cemented its NCAA at-large bid.

"One of our assistants was saying, 'That's a Sweet 16 team you just beat,' " recalled George Mason guard Lamar Butler. "He kept saying that but I never imagined we would see them in the NCAA Tournament."

The teams have spent the middle of March busting brackets all over the nation. Wichita State disposed of Seton Hall and Tennessee while George Mason dumped two of last year's Final Four teams, Michigan State and North Carolina.

Mason's location near the nation's capital has resulted in its campus getting besieged by national reporters this week.

"It's been overwhelming, non-stop from Sunday evening to right now," said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga. "I got a text message from one of my former assistant coaches [Providence's Bill Courtney] and he said, 'Coach, how are you going to avoid all the distractions?' I text messaged him back, 'What distractions? You live for this. You've got to enjoy this.'

"I told our players it can't get any better than this. If you can't have fun and enjoy the excitement surrounding our program, you can't get excited about anything."

Wichita State is 26-8 while George Mason is 25-7. Both teams can dominate on the boards and are terrific defensively (Mason allows just 59.1 points, while Wichita's yield is just 61.8). They also both possess incredible balance on offense with no scorers over 14 points per game on either side.

"They're a great basketball team and they caught us on a good night the first time," said Wichita State swingman P.J. Cousinard. "They play well together and they've got a big man down low [6-foot-7, 275-pound senior Jai Lewis, the team's leading scorer at 13.8 points]. If you haven't seen them or you've just seen them for the first time, you'll be like, 'Wow, they really can play.' "

"When I first came in, [Larranaga's] goal was to go to the NCAA Tournament and I told him I wanted to go to the Sweet 16," Butler said. "For it to finally happen my senior year is amazing. I said it but I never imagined how it would be."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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