A quick start, a stifling defense and a raucous home crowd provided the perfect storm Friday night for George Mason.
The Patriots scored the first nine points and controlled their battle of mid-majors from start to finish in dumping Wichita State, 63-55, in a Washington Regional semifinal.
"Go Mason" placards were everywhere in the Verizon Center crowd of more than 18,000 as the Patriots enjoyed a rollicking homecourt advantage while playing just 22 miles from their campus in suburban Fairfax, Va.
So a program that entered this month with no NCAA Tournament wins in its 28-year Division I history is now one measly win away from the Final Four. The 11th-seeded Patriots (26-7), a major question mark on Selection Sunday, are in the Elite Eight here Sunday against top-seeded Connecticut, a 98-92 overtime winner over Washington, for the right to go to Indianapolis.
"That sounds awfully good," said a beaming coach Jim Larranaga.
The stands erupted when Mason guard Gabe Norwood stole a Wichita pass in the final 30 seconds to seal the victory. When the horn sounded, Larranaga raced across the court pointing with glee at his team's howling fans. Guard Lamar Butler found the nearest CBS camera and roared "Eight, Eight, Eight" while holding up eight fingers.
"It was just an adrenaline rush from my head to my feet," Butler said. "I can't describe it. It was an awesome feeling."
Sophomore forward Folarin Campbell led the Patriots with 16 points, setting the tone with a trio of three-pointers in the first 4 1/2 minutes that sent Mason on its way. Butler and Tony Skinn, the Patriots' senior guards, had 14 points apiece while forward Will Thomas had 10 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
Center Paul Miller, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, led Wichita State (26-9) with 16 points and nine rebounds. But the Shockers never had a chance largely because they hit just 3 of 24 from three-point range and 20 of 64 overall for a season-low 31.3 percent.
Mason was shooting just 35 percent from three-point range entering the game but canned an electrifying 8 of 16 in this one -- including 7 of 11 in the first half. The Patriots drilled a trio of three-pointers to build a 9-0 lead in the first 2 1/2 minutes and that was that. Mason never trailed in becoming the first No. 11 seed to get to a regional final since Loyola Marymount got there in 1990.
"They got out of the gate hot and that was the difference in the game," said Wichita state coach Mark Turgeon.
Mason was up, 14-3, after just 4 minutes, 19 seconds as Campbell, a 32-percent three-point shooter, hit his first three from long range. He's averaging 17.3 points during the NCAAs after scoring just 10.2 beforehand.
"I've been working on my jump shots and it's been paying off," Campbell said.
The lead never slipped until single digits until there was 2:01 left. It was a big turnaround from George Mason's second-round win Sunday over North Carolina, a game that saw the Patriots claw back from a 16-2 hole.
"The last game Carolina got out on us and we wanted to come out and get out on Wichita State," Butler said. "We wanted to deliver the first blow."
George Mason 63, Wichita State 55
Villanova 60, Boston College 59 (OT)
Connecticut 98, Washington 92 (OT)
Florida 57, Georgetown 53