What did you do
after UConn's final shot bounced off the rim? George Mason guard Folarin
Campbell tore off his green Patriots jersey and leaped onto a table along press
row. ("I was so excited, I would have run out there buck naked," he
would say later.) Teammates Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn joined him in an
instant, shouting, "Final Four!" and "We're going to Indy,
baby!" Their coach, Jim Larranaga, pointed with both hands to the partisan
crowd at Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center, a frothing mass that erupted into a
chorus of the Bon Jovi classic Livin' on a Prayer, the Patriots' recently
adopted theme song. In an NCAA tournament of historic surprises--not since 1980
had every No. 1 seed run aground before the Final Four--11th-seeded George
Mason had sprung the most stunning of them all on Sunday, slaying the
top-seeded Connecticut colossus.
Let there be no doubt: No matter how they perform against Florida in this
Saturday's national semifinal in Indianapolis, the Patriots have put together
the most improbable Final Four run in the annals of college basketball. Who
else can make a better argument? Not Texas Western's 1966 championship team,
which was ranked No. 3 in the country going into the NCAA tournament. Not
Villanova's 1985 national champs, who hailed from the Big East Conference (not
exactly Cinderella-ville). Not North Carolina State's 1983 title winners, who
had already won the ACC tournament. Not even Penn and Indiana State, the last
mid-majors to make the Final Four, in 1979, when the Quakers beat No. 8 and 10
seeds and the Sycamores had Larry Bird. In today's 65-team NCAA tournament,
George Mason's achievement--a suburban commuter school winning four straight
games against national heavyweights--ranks among the most remarkable feats in
modern team sports.
How do you become
America's Team in the span of one soul-stirring fortnight? Well, you start by
barely securing a controversial at-large bid after losing to Hofstra in the
semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Then you beat No.
6-seeded Michigan State despite missing your second-leading scorer (Skinn, who
was suspended for one game after the conference tournament for punching a
Hofstra player in the groin). Then you pick off third-seeded North Carolina,
the defending national champion, after overcoming a 16-2 deficit. Then you sink
No. 7 seed Wichita State, a fellow mid-major arriviste fresh off its own upset
of second-seeded Tennessee. And finally, most improbably of all, you eliminate
top-seeded UConn, the prohibitive title favorite, by surviving a heart-stopping
overtime--and Denham Brown's last-second three-point attempt--to produce the
most shocking tournament score in decades: George Mason 86, UConn 84.
At week's end the
Patriots' list of victims numbered the past two national champions, North
Carolina and UConn, and, with Michigan State, three title winners from this
decade. "This is something I've tried to do for 20 years," says
Larranaga, a mid-major grinder since 1986 who had never won an NCAA tournament
game as a head coach until this season. "When you finally get there as an
at-large team and advance past the first round, you're so excited, you just
want the magic carpet ride to continue. The Final Four is the mecca of college
basketball, the focal point of what March Madness is all about."
night, only two hours after nodding off during an interview with SI, an
exhausted Larranaga was seated at a computer in the lobby of the Crystal
Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va., printing out stat sheets in preparation for
the UConn game. They came courtesy of his sons, 31-year-old Jay and 25-year-old
Jon, who both played for Larranaga in college and serve as a hoops support
system for their pops, even though Jay is now a professional player in Italy
and Jon works in Washington, D.C. During the North Carolina game, Jon was in
the stands at the University of Dayton Arena speaking constantly on his
cellphone with a frantic Jay, who was watching the Internet broadcast in Naples
and pleading (fruitlessly) for his brother to run down to the bench and pass
along instructions to their dad. (When they run the screen-and-roll, don't have
the guys flash high!) After that upset Jim and Jon walked out to a quiet corner
of the arena, and the three Larranaga men shared a tearful moment on the
"They grew up
in a basketball family. They saw the craziness, the hours spent on
recruiting," says Jim, who would bring his sons along on recruiting trips
to see such high school stars as Alonzo Mourning and Eric Montross--as well as
mid-major targets nobody had heard of.
At 5 a.m. last
Saturday, unable to sleep after his team's win over Wichita State, Larranaga
called Jay to discuss UConn. "He starts telling me things and says, 'Are
you writing this down?'" Larranaga recalled later that day. "So this is
what he told me. It's so damn good." He pulled out three hand-scribbled
Post-It notes and read aloud: "The key is winning the first half. The three
games they lost, they were behind at the half. Second, Marcus Williams is the
only guy on the team with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, so you have to
figure out how to reduce his effectiveness. Third, down the stretch Josh Boone
shoots 55 percent from the foul line and Rudy Gay shoots 55 percent in the last
five minutes. Fourth, Rashad Anderson is their main three-point shooter, so
don't let him get going. And finally, turn them over. They had 26 turnovers
last night [against Washington], so change up your defenses."
In the end the
Patriots somehow toppled UConn despite achieving almost none of Jay's goals.
They fell behind by as many as 12 points and trailed 43-34 at halftime. They
couldn't rattle the Huskies, who committed only nine turnovers. And they
weren't able to slow down Williams, who finished with 13 points and 11 assists.
But they did limit Anderson to 2-for-8 three-point shooting, and even after
Brown saved UConn with a game-tying, buzzer-beating reverse layup at the end of
regulation, the Patriots refused to yield in overtime. Thanks to clutch baskets
by forward Will Thomas, Butler and Campbell, in fact, they never trailed
It was a stunning
display of onions, as CBS roundball poet Bill Raftery used to say. "This
team is so poised, I don't need to say anything as a leader," said Butler,
the jovial senior guard whose charisma Larranaga likens to Sugar Ray Leonard's.
"We're aware how big this is, but it's not affecting us."
Mason was able to enjoy the moment and keep its focus in the media maelstrom
last week, all while maintaining a sense of humor that stood in stark contrast
to the joylessness in the UConn camp. When the Patriots were shown last week's
issue of SI, which featured Butler on a regional cover, they were convinced at
first that it was a put-on. ("We thought Lamar's dad might have put it
together or something," cracked swingman Gabe Norwood.) Meanwhile,
Larranaga held the team's regular mood-lightening baseball game at the end of
an early-week practice, and he took advantage of the Huskies' inability to name
George Mason's league by telling his players in his Sunday pregame talk that
the CAA now stood for the "Connecticut Assassin Association."
A Bronx native who
can produce an ear-splitting whistle to get his players' attention, the
57-year-old Larranaga plays the psychology game both ways. Last spring, after a
16-13 season plagued by subpar defense and rebounding, he announced that the
players would begin daily 6 a.m. lifting sessions. For 40 minutes--the length
of a game--they toiled without music, conversation or water breaks. (Larranaga
wore a shirt and tie each morning to drive home the all-business theme.) He
also brought in sports psychologist Bob Rotella to work with the Patriots on
positive thinking. Once the NCAA tournament began, Larranaga pushed all the
right motivational buttons, such as cuing up the rap track Kryptonite by the
Purple Ribbon All-Stars in the locker room before the upset of North Carolina.
If the Tar Heels were Supermen, Larranaga told his players, "we're going to
be their kryptonite."