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J.A. Adande

These Guys' Hit List Is Down to Only Two

March 27, 2006|J.A. Adande

WASHINGTON — You can call them Cinderella and they won't mind, you can see the collection of smiles and dub them a feel-good story and be right, but understand one thing: The persona the George Mason Patriots adopted and the way they played Sunday was more in line with a cold-blooded killing syndicate.

And now that they've forced you to crumple your bracket and toss it in the trash, they're asking a question that has to make you pause and scratch your head.

"Who can't we beat now?" George Mason guard Tony Skinn yelled into a television headset, amid the postgame cacophony at the Verizon Center. "Who can't we beat?"

Let's see, they'd already knocked out a Michigan State team loaded with players who went to the Final Four last year, and a North Carolina team that recovered from losing a roster full of championship-winning NBA draft picks to become one of the country's elite teams, and they just took out the consensus pick to win this tournament.

And now, in the first Final Four without a top-seeded team since 1980, what's to keep the first 11th-seeded team to reach April in 20 years from stopping Florida's Joakim Noah or overcoming UCLA's defense or Louisiana State's athleticism?

George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga has lived life on the other side, as an assistant coach on a top-seeded Virginia team that lost a regional final to Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team in 1983. He also was there when top-ranked Virginia lost to tiny Chaminade in Hawaii.

"The seed is just a number where you're placed as to who you will play in the first round," Larranaga said. "Once you get on the court, no one really cares where you're seeded. It's about performance and execution."

Beware. I spent about 37 hours doubting that the Patriots could beat a talented Connecticut team, and now I'm staring at a box score that reads George Mason 86, Connecticut 84. I thought that when the Huskies made their customary mistakes the Patriots wouldn't be able to take advantage. I was wrong on both fronts. The Huskies didn't give away the game, and the Patriots didn't need any breaks.

"They're not on a magic carpet ride because there's any myth there," Coach Jim Calhoun said. "They are good. They are really, really good."

The story of how the Patriots took one last swing of the wrecking ball to office pools nationwide isn't about lucky shots or a mistake-filled afternoon by the favorites. The Patriots outperformed a stellar Connecticut squad for 39 minutes 54.5 seconds. And when that wasn't quite enough, they beat Connecticut again in overtime. The only way you'll see a better college basketball game is to catch Duke-Kentucky '92 on ESPN Classic.

George Mason isn't one of those teams that snaps at the idea of being called the underdog. They figure it has worked so far, so why change.

"I think we'll stick to the script, going in to whoever we play," Skinn said. "We don't mind being the Cinderella."

Before the Patriots took the court, Larranaga gave his team a new description, telling them they belonged to a super-secret organization called the CAA.

Not the Colonial Athletic Assn., their home conference.

"Connecticut Assassin Association," he told them.

Then the 11th-seeded team took on and took out the Huskies, the top-seeded team in the Washington Regional and consensus pick to win the NCAA tournament

The "team of lapses," as Calhoun described his squad last week, didn't have any. Momentary mistakes, sure. But no stretches of brainless basketball. Even with an additional five minutes, the Huskies committed only nine turnovers in 45 minutes That was Connecticut's fewest in its last eight games and a big improvement from the 26 turnovers Friday against Washington. The Huskies shot an acceptable 47% from the field and made 79% of their free throws.

The one thing the Patriots did exceptionally well was make six of seven three-point shots in the second half. But if that was a case of hot hands, George Mason's 37-34 rebounding advantage was simply hard work.

"I think I just wanted the basketball more than them, man," said George Mason forward Will Thomas, who personally out-rebounded Connecticut big men Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong, 12-9.

He also dropped in hook shots over his shot-blocking Connecticut counterparts, while Jai Lewis backed in Huskies from the other block and Skinn and Lamar Butler dropped in three-pointers.

We saw some of the Huskies at their best as well. The now-you-see-him, now-you-don't Rudy Gay was fully accounted for, making half of his 16 shots to score 20 points. Marcus Williams lived up to his billing as the nation's best point guard with 13 points and 11 assists.

George Mason rallied after a Connecticut flourish that gave the Huskies a 12-point lead in the first half, then came out ahead after a scintillating second-half stretch in which the teams tied the score or grabbed the lead on eight consecutive trips down the court.

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