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Monday, March 27, 2006 - Page updated at 11:52 AM

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Steve Kelley

George Mason stuns No. 1 UConn in overtime

Seattle Times staff columnist

WASHINGTON, D.C. — George Mason. Tiny, unknown, practically unwanted, 11th-seeded George Mason, from the where-is-that Colonial Athletic Association, was about to take the floor to play mighty Connecticut, the highest-rated team still alive in the tournament.

The day before, UConn's Rashad Anderson had guaranteed a win, and nobody with a pen, a mic, or a computer could find a convincing argument to counter his claim.

So in the locker room before his team's 86-84 overtime stunner, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga decided to remind his men's basketball team of its roots.

"We're from the CAA," Larranaga said. "That means the Connecticut Assassins Association. That's where we come from."

The team laughed, loosened up, then went into the unfamiliar swelter of the Verizon Center, in front of virtually a home crowd and beat the top-seed in the region, in one of those games that makes this month and this event the only real guarantee on the sports calendar.

"CAA," Larranaga repeated at every timeout, making sure his players laughed.

Every once in a while a coach and a team steps up to remind us that basketball still is a game. A coach and a team pierces the tension of March with their personalities, as well as their games.

And Sunday afternoon, George Mason grinned and gunned and played the game the way it was meant to be played. The Patriots beat basketball's glum Goliaths. They outplayed Connecticut and they out-funned the Huskies.

"Why do we have fun?" repeated shooting guard Lamar Butler, who already has set an NCAA tournament for smiles. "Three words, Coach Jim Larranaga. He definitely keeps us loose with the comments he makes during the game and at all the timeouts. He's always trying to be funny. Sometimes he's not funny, but you can't help but laugh just because you know he's trying his best to be funny."

This wasn't just a win. It was a celebration of everything that is good about college sports. And it was a statement to Billy Packer and all of the gurus who believe this tournament should be packed with teams from the major conferences that they are dead wrong.

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"We came into this tournament as an at-large team," Larranaga said. "Then we became an at-extra large team. And I told someone that if we win today we will be a at-double-extra-large team."

George Mason is a living-large team. Learn these names. They aren't leaving.

Jai Lewis, the round mound who scored 20 points. Will Thomas, the long, lean center with the deadly jump hook, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Tony Skinn, the point guard running the show.

Folarin Campbell, the all-smiles wing man, who hit the three-pointer that tied the game 49-49 with 12:31 left in regulation. And the senior Butler, the regional MVP who predicted when he came to George Mason that he would take his team to the Final Four.

"I was kind of kidding when I said that," Butler said, his regional-championship hat sitting backward on his head, a piece of the winning net stuck like a flower in the headband.

This is supposed to be the weekend all of the Cinderellas die. But Mason doesn't believe in fairy tales, even if it is living one.

The Patriots were down by 12 late in the first half. They came back.

They were crushed when Denham Brown's game-tying drive at the buzzer hung tantalizingly on the rim before dropping through to send the game to overtime. But they never caved.

"There's no place on Earth I'd rather be than here in the Verizon Center playing Connecticut," Larranaga told the team in the huddle before overtime.

This game will be called an upset, one of the greatest in the history of the NCAA tournament. The Patriots are the first 11th seed to make it to the Final Four since Louisiana State in 1986, and only the second in the tournament's history.

But the game didn't feel like an upset. UConn didn't play poorly. George Mason played remarkably.

The Patriots outshot UConn. They outrebounded the Huskies. They made six straight threes, in the rhythm of their offense. They committed only 11 turnovers.

In the past two weeks, this team has beaten Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn, teams that have won four of the past seven championships. And it thumped Wichita State in the regional semifinals Friday.

"We watched [the selection show] at coach's house and really I was probably the only one who was saying that we were going to get in," said Butler, who made 4 of 6 threes and scored 19 points. "Everybody else was saying, 'I don't know. I don't know.'

"We just wanted that chance, an opportunity to show people that we're good. And when they said, 'George Mason,' the whole place just erupted. It felt like the roof had lifted off Coach's house. This is the time you get to show the nation how good you are, so we have to thank the [NCAA] committee for giving us a chance."

Butler has it all wrong.

The committee should be thanking George Mason for reminding us there is joy in the madness of March.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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