Mason's miracle almost was derailed in CAA quarters
Thanks to George Mason, we no longer talk about second-weekend ceilings on mid-major runs in the NCAA Tournament. Part of the history of Mason's storybook 2005-06 season that's never talked about, though, is a bitterly hard-fought, non-televised 61-56 overtime victory over 10th-seeded Georgia State in the quarterfinals of the CAA tournament, a reminder of how volatile and unexpected the events of Championship Week can be.
A year ago, the Patriots finished the regular season as the CAA co-champions and the tourney's No. 2 seed, winners of 23 games and owners of a glistening 15-3 league record. Although they would lose to Hofstra in the league semis, those attributes allowed them to dance via a hotly debated selection committee reprieve one week later; the Patriots' No. 11 seed was the conference's first at-large bid in two decades.
There most likely would have been no debate at all, though, had George Mason burned its résumé a day earlier by losing to an upstart Georgia State team with nothing to play for but pride.
"We were very fortunate to win that game," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "If we hadn't won, I don't think we would have made the [NCAA] Tournament."
The slim five-point margin and its five extra minutes were all the more surprising considering Georgia State's come-lately status in the Colonial. The school was the league's brand-new southern outpost, having joined the conference in a wave of expansion the previous summer. Early on, the Panthers found the transition from the run-and-fun Atlantic Sun to the nails-tough CAA very difficult -- in GSU's second league home game, George Mason destroyed the Panthers, 81-51.
"We had played Georgia State in early December," Larranaga recalled. "It was our first conference game. By the time we played them again in the CAA tournament quarterfinals, they had completely changed. They went from a team that tried to fast break and run it up and down the floor to a team that played three guards, spread it out, used the shot clock to their advantage and dribble penetrated."
Georgia State, with a 6-21 record (3-15 CAA), came to Richmond with ambitious intentions, looking to either go down fighting or to fashion an improbable run to glory. But even after GSU held No. 7-seeded Towson to 37 percent shooting in a 72-64 first-round upset to move into the quarterfinal, the very same weapon that George Mason later would use to topple Michigan State and North Carolina in the NCAA's first weekend -- opponent overconfidence -- nearly shipped the Patriots to the NIT instead.
"It was hard for our players to understand what a drastic change they'd made," Larranaga said. "So going into that game, no matter how prepared we were, we weren't prepared mentally. We told our players, 'They're different now.' But it was, 'Yeah, yeah, coach, we killed them before, we'll kill them again.'"
The Patriots went through their pregame motions appearing disinterested and sluggish, and the Panthers took immediate advantage once play began. GSU opened up an early 12-2 lead, and was up 21-14 after the second media timeout before Mason finally awoke and used 10 unanswered points to claim a slim halftime lead. But that would be Mason's last extended scoring run of the night -- GSU was determined to limit its opponent's second-chance opportunities and stymie any and all breakaways.
"The first time we played them, we tried to outscore them," Perry said. "In the tournament, we tried to outdefend them. After we took care of Towson, we were thinking that we just had to get back in transition with Mason. If we could get back on defense, and minimize their offensive rebound productivity, we felt we could be very competitive with them."
The Panthers were providing more than mere competition: With 5:41 remaining in regulation, the game was a goopy slog, and the score was tied at 41.
"It was a typical tournament game, where the good team started slow but you know they were coming back," said Michael Litos, who chronicled the 2005-06 CAA season and George Mason's run for a new book called "Cinderella: Inside the Rise of Mid-Major Basketball." "But from the 12-minute mark to the four-minute mark of the second half, every time Mason was ready to do that really-good-team pull-away routine, Georgia State had the answer and kept it close."
The lead changed hands often late in the second half, with neither team jumping ahead by more than a basket. Then, as time wound down, George Mason found itself not only fighting the five black-clad opponents on the floor, but an arena full of rogue fans as well.
"Maybe it's just the geeky mid-major purist in me," Litos said. "But I was just enjoying the fact that a team that had won seven games all season was taking the regular season co-champs to the wire, watching as the crowd in the Coliseum slowly started rooting for Georgia State. By the end of regulation, Mason was playing a road game."
Indeed, that mysterious dynamic that George Mason would successfully harness once it got to the Big Dance -- the propensity for a neutral crowd to latch onto the underdog in a tight game -- began to work against the Patriots. Suddenly, they were locked in a death struggle in a hostile arena, fighting off a scare from a team eight seeds lower than themselves, facing a loss that would have dulled the shine from each of their 23 previous victories.
"They were a team to beat," Perry said. "I've been in situations in the NCAA Tournament where, if the game is close down the stretch, fans start coming over to the underdog's side, and that was the case there. And there were a few questionable calls, and that got the crowd behind us even more. They were supporting us, and the kids really fed off that energy."
And having a wall of support behind them was a somewhat new experience for the Panthers, who were used to playing in front of mere handfuls of fans back home.
"Georgia State, being in the city of Atlanta, offers a lot of things to do other than a basketball game on Thursday or Saturday night," Perry said. "So having a sizable crowd behind us was a real thrill."
For the Panthers and their new temporary supporters, so was the underwhelming performance of the heavy favorites -- the Patriots shot just 41 percent for the game, including an abysmal 2-for-11 from 3. Georgia State, led by a little 5-foot-9 guy named Herman Favors, was able to contain the three seniors who would become hoops household names soon later -- Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler (a combined 25 points) -- and lured Lewis into his fifth foul at the end of regulation. That left it up to then-sophomore Will Thomas and sixth man Sammy Hernandez to step up and be heroes.
"Sammy hit two big shots at the start of the overtime, a layup and a 3-pointer," Larranaga said. "That was huge. Then we went small and spread them out, leaving Will the space to work inside, and he scored two straight buckets. So between Sammy and Will, we were able to hang on."
The rest is, of course, history -- but the 2006-07 Mason crew enters the 2007 CAA tournament as a 9-9 mystery. One year removed from the magical NCAA run, most of Mason's stars from that team are gone: Lewis, Skinn and Butler all graduated, and Fairfax, Va., folk hero Hernandez transferred to Florida Atlantic, back to his home state, in search of higher temperatures and increased playing time.
"When you look at our team this year, four of our top six guys are gone," Larranaga said. "People have had a hard time understanding why we've struggled this year, but we lost over 4,000 points of production from our program."
As a No. 6 seed, without the first-round bye that a top-four finish assures, the Patriots will have to win on four straight days to return to the NCAAs. Though the seed number is considerably more advantageous than a No. 10, it's the same challenge Georgia State faced last year: The Patriots need to dig themselves out from a clearly defined underdog role.
"I do think there's a tremendous parallel there," Litos said. "When you strip out last year and the funky perspective [the Final Four run] gave the world, this is still a team that lost three seniors. These guys have played 28, 30 games, and like Dennis Green says, this time of year you are what you are, and Mason is a sixth-place team. I think Coach Larranaga will be motivating the team differently this year, because they really are an underdog now."
So as you watch Championship Week develop, remember that there are no givens, no sure things as the college basketball world narrows itself down from a sea of contenders to 65 NCAA-worthy squads. Don't count anyone out of the running before the games are actually played, from hungry second-place finishers to sixth-place former Final Four teams. And as a pesky group of Georgia State Panthers showed last year, watch out for those double-digit seeds with absolutely nothing to lose.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.