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ELEVENTH HEAVEN: George Mason shocks UConn in overtime, earns unlikely trip to Final Four

WASHINGTON -- No matter what happens in Indianapolis next weekend, the landscape of college basketball was changed forever Sunday.

Just getting into the NCAA Tournament and maybe winning a game or two no longer is the best a mid-major school can hope for. Your hoop dreams can be big ones -- regardless of the name on the front of your jersey.

George Mason will be the school all little guys will look up to. The 11th-seeded Patriots from Fairfax, Va., pulled off one of the greatest upsets in tournament history by knocking off top-seeded Connecticut in overtime, 86-84, to earn an RCA Dome date with Florida. It's a Final Four that features no No. 1 seeds for the first time since 1980.

"Hey, there's no such thing as mid-majors anymore," regional MVP Lamar Butler roared in the joyous Patriots locker room, a snip of the net sprouting from inside his championship cap. "Anyone can do it. We just proved that. Take that label away."

Remember, Mason lost twice at the end of the season to Loren Stokes-led Hofstra and was doubting it would even get an at-large bid out of the Colonial Athletic Association. Now it's the first mid-major in the Final Four since Penn and Indiana State went in 1979. Little guys everywhere -- and that includes you, Big 4 -- saw for real it can happen.

"I was kidding one of our assistants before the game that, 'We're not an at- large. We're an 'at-extra large,' " said coach Jim Larranaga. "And if we win today, we're going to be an 'at-double-extra large.' I can't tell you how much fun I'm having."

"Playing at that level at Northeastern, I can only imagine, probably better than most, the feeling they must have on that campus and in that locker room," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who regularly tormented Canisius and Niagara while leading the Boston school during the 1980s. "I tip my hat to their courage."

As an 11 seed, the Patriots (27-7) join the 1986 LSU team as the lowest ever to make the Final Four. In the process, Mason wiped out the last two national champions in UConn and North Carolina.

A roaring Verizon Center crowd of 19,718 clad mostly in green and gold saw yet another sensational game in a tournament full of them.

Mason trailed by 12 points in the final 10 seconds of the first half, and by 43-34 at halftime. The margin was still nine early in the second half but the Patriots hit their first six three-pointers in the period, and then canned five of six shots in overtime to win it.

They even survived a cruel heartbreak at the end of regulation when UConn's Denham Brown drove for a reverse layup that bounced on the rim, bounced on the rim, bounced on the rim -- and fell through after the buzzer sounded to tie the score at 74-74.

Brown got his chance when Mason guard Tony Skinn clanked the front end of a one-and-one with 5.5 seconds to go. But instead of brooding over their fate, the Patriots regrouped.

"I told them, 'There's no place on earth I'd rather be than here with you guys in the Verizon Center playing Connecticut,' " said Larranaga. "Now we have to beat them in a five-minute game."

The Patriots scored first in OT on Will Thomas' hook and never trailed. Jai Lewis' layup with 3:01 left gave them the lead for good, 80-78 and Folarin Campbell put UConn in futile catchup mode with a jumper with 1:11 left that made it 84-80.

It was 86-81 when UConn's Marcus Williams canned a three-pointer with 10.1 seconds left to get the Huskies within two. Lewis then clanked two free throws with six seconds left, giving UConn a final chance, but Brown's three-pointer from the left wing hit the rim and bounced away as the crowd roared.

The players climbed atop the press table, waving their jerseys over their heads. Larranaga got a bear hug from athletics director Tom O'Connor, the former St. Bonaventure AD. The pep band was in the spirit, blasting the team's adopted theme song, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."

"It was pure joy, indescribable joy," Butler said. "It was overwhelming. My father was crying. My mother was crying. For this to happen in my hometown in front of my home fans, I can't describe it."

Larranaga prodded his players by pointing out that some Connecticut players didn't know what league the Patriots were in when asked Saturday by a local reporter. He told them to make "CAA" stand for "Connecticut Assassin Association."

"Every time he would talk [during timeouts], he would just say 'CAA' and we knew what it meant," Lewis said. "That was our motivation."

A good ploy indeed. The Patriots weren't bothered by UConn's defensive pressure, as evidenced by the fact they committed only 11 turnovers in 45 minutes. They hit 30 of 60 from the field, 9 of 18 from three-point range and had a 37-34 rebounding advantage over the mountainous UConn front line. Their only hiccup was 17-of-25 shooting at the line.

All five Mason starters scored in double figures. Lewis had 20 points, Thomas had 19 points and a game-high 12 rebounds and Butler had 19 points, including 4 of 6 from three-point range.

"The last thing I told my guys before the game was that I wanted to be playing baseball Tuesday in the Patriot Center," said Larranaga, who's had his players stage Wiffle and Nerf ball games on their home floor to add a light end to practices. "I think they got the message because they were great."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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