Thursday, March 30, 2006

NCAA Tournament Coverage for Yahoo Sports

In March 2006, I covered the Washington, D.C. region of the NCAA tourney for Yahoo sports. If you click on the link above, you'll get to my first notebook for Yahoo and links to the dozen or so others I wrote. It was a great gig, the best part being I got to cover and see the George Mason run to the final four.

My favorite memory of the whole thing was the camaraderie of that team, they really loved playing with each other and it was a team that click at the right moment. I'll paste below my favorite column, the one I wrote after George Mason upset UConn to go the Final Four. What a game.


Washington, D.C., notebook: From commuters to crashers
By Greg Abel, Special to Yahoo! Sports
March 27, 2006

More notebooks: Atlanta | Oakland | Washington, D.C. | Minneapolis

Regular-season highlights: George Mason

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For anyone who ever bet a long shot, pulled for an underdog or bought a lotto ticket truly believing that it might just be the one, meet the men's basketball team from George Mason.

The Patriots, a bunch of undersized players with oversized hearts and unshakable confidence, cashed a winning ticket to the 2006 Final Four on Sunday by beating Connecticut 86-84 in overtime.

After the final buzzer sounded here, after UConn's Denham Brown missed a three-pointer that would have won the game for the Huskies, after UConn finally lost after flirting with defeat in every game of the tournament, the lid nearly blew off the Verizon Center. A palpable and electric sense of elation filled the arena and took the form of George Mason coach Jim Larranaga sprinting across the court, both hands raised high in the air, smiling as widely as his face would allow.

His players mugged each other and screamed, "We are going to the Final Four!" Fans and newly converted fans of this team from a commuter school just 22 miles from the arena shook their heads and cheered in euphoria and disbelief.

"I can't tell you how much fun I'm having," Larranaga said later to a packed press conference.

No one could believe it, and yet there they were in green and gold road jerseys, an 11th seed cutting down the nets after sending home the top-seeded Huskies.

The Connecticut players left the court in frustration and shock. George Mason – George Mason! – a school with absolutely no national reputation in college basketball, no McDonald's All-Americans and, in the minds of many, no business in the NCAA tournament, much less the Final Four, had really, truly done it.

It beat Connecticut.

"That was pure joy, indescribable joy," said Mason shooting guard Lamar Butler, who made three huge three-pointers in the second half and finished with 19 points en route to being named outstanding player in the region.

Of all of the previously unknown Patriots, Butler and his smiling face has become the symbol of George Mason basketball and, perhaps, of this wild, thrill-a-minute tournament. He's a 6-foot-2, 170-pound senior who joked about taking George Mason to the Final Four when he signed with the program but never thought it really would happen.

"It just overwhelmed me," said Butler of the feeling when the game ended. "I looked at my father, he was smiling, crying. My mother, they were all crying. It was like a dream come true."

A dream that didn't captivate just Mason players and their fans but rather everyone in the building, save for the UConn diehards, of course. Everyone – NCAA officials, security guards, reporters, even reporters from Connecticut – stared in disbelief and smiled in genuine appreciation at the scene unfolding before their eyes.

"You know, I called Duke-Kentucky," CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist said, referring to the classic 1992 game when Christian Laettner made a game-winner for Duke at the buzzer. "And this one." He paused and thought for a moment. "I don't know if it's better, but it's right there with it. Emotionally, this one was better because of the crowd."

Win of a lifetime
In the press conference after the game, the five Mason starters, all of whom played the entire overtime period and most of the second half, sat with strings from the net poking out from newly acquired regional championship hats.

"The string, I've got two actually," Butler said. "One I'm going to keep in my pocket wherever I go. The other I'm going to frame and put on my wall."

On Saturday, Connecticut guard Rashad Anderson, he of the game-tying shot to force overtime against Washington, guaranteed victory against George Mason. It didn't even seem like a bold statement. Who didn't think UConn would beat George Mason?

As it turns out, George Mason.

"I definitely think they slept on us a little bit," said Mason forward Will Thomas, who scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, his third double-double of the tournament. "I don't think teams are going to do that any more."

There aren't many left with the chance. The Patriots are in for a week of supercharged publicity prior to facing Florida in Indianapolis on Saturday. Another big program, another opportunity for history and another opportunity to have fun.

"We're all calm, poised, and we just make sure we have fun," said Folarin Campbell, a 6-4 guard/forward who matched up with Connecticut's Rudy Gay for much of the afternoon. "I mean, basketball's made to have fun so if you ain't having fun, you're not going to perform."

Connecticut Assassin Association
Larranaga took it upon himself to come up with a catchy acronym to inspire his team prior to the game. He's been preaching "have fun" throughout the tournament but thought he needed to come up with something with a little more pizzazz. Enter C-A-A – the Connecticut Assassin Association.

CAA has a double meaning, of course, seeing as how George Mason plays in the Colonial Athletic Association. But on Sunday, Larranaga repeated the acronym at the end of team huddles throughout the game.

"Every time he would talk, he just said CAA' and we knew what it meant," said Jai Lewis, the Patriots' center, who scored 20 points. "That was our motivation, every timeout."

Lewis and Thomas, the only true post men on George Mason, outplayed their counterparts from Connecticut. Thomas frustrated the taller Huskies all game with his left-handed baby hooks and drop steps, while Lewis barreled his way around the lane, creating space with his 275-pound frame.

George Mason, shorter than Connecticut players at every position, outrebounded the Huskies 37-34.

"In life, as I told the kids, it doesn't always go the way you planned," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "They don't measure heart by inches, they don't measure courage, they don't measure basketball instinct and intelligence."

Surprisingly, the Connecticut low-post player who had the best game was reserve forward Jeff Adrien, who scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting.

"He was magnificent," Calhoun said.

Connecticut nearly pulls another great escape
Connecticut appeared destined to lose at the end of regulation. They trailed by two and Mason's Tony Skinn was at the free-throw line shooting a one-and-one with six seconds left. Skinn, a fearless 6-1 guard, missed. Seconds later, Connecticut's Denham Brown went streaking down the lane for a reverse layup that sat on the rim before dropping through the net at the buzzer.

It seemed Connecticut had seized momentum with its latest great escape, but in overtime the Huskies could not take charge and never led, though their players and coach maintained confidence throughout.

"There was no doubt in my mind the whole game; I thought we were going to win," said Connecticut point guard Marcus Williams, who scored 13 points and handed out 11 assists.

Mason, however, had other ideas. Campbell held his own against Gay with 15 points and two rebounds to Gay's 20 and six. Campbell made the move and shot of his life with one minute left in overtime and Mason up by two. With the shot clock winding down and the 6-9 Gay draped all over him, Campbell spun on the baseline and swished a turnaround, fadeaway jumper.

It was just that kind of day for George Mason. Brown had a chance to win it for UConn at the buzzer after Lewis missed two free throws, but his three-point attempt was off the mark.

"We almost got away with another one," Calhoun said.

Will Thomas improves to 8-0 against Rudy Gay
George Mason's Thomas and Connecticut's Gay are both from the Baltimore area and played for prep teams that faced each other regularly. Thomas said his Mount St. Joseph's team was 7-0 against Gay's team from Archbishop Curley.

Now, he's 8-0 against Gay.

"I didn't think about that at all," Thomas said. "I'm just glad we won."

Best of Larranaga from the postgame press conference
"We're not just an at-large, we're an at-extra large, and [after winning today], we're going to be an at-double extra large."

"To us, we are a small group, a basketball team that represents a group much larger than us. I've gotten emails from people who are sick. I got one email from a gentleman who was in a car accident not long ago who is having a very difficult time just walking right now. And he said in watching us play and how hard we play and how we overcame the odds that he felt he could overcome anything that he was going to face."

"One of the thoughts of the day is from William Jennings Bryant, who wrote: Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.' It's not something that is given to you. It's something that you earn. That's something we strongly emphasize to our players; that for us, we need to earn respect. No one is going to give it to us."

"Thank you very much everybody. See you in Indianapolis."

Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in The Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the Washington, D.C., regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.

Updated on Monday, Mar 27, 2006 2:38 am, EST

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