On Friday, George Mason will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the most unlikely run in NCAA Tournament history, the Patriots’ historic charge to the Final Four.
And it all started with a tournament they did not win.
After a 22-6 regular season in 2005-06, and tying UNC Wilmington for the Colonial Athletic Association’s regular-season championship, the Patriots lost 58-49 to Hofstra in the CAA Tournament semifinals. In fact, it was their second loss to Hofstra in 10 days.
Tony Skinn compounded the conference tournament loss by punching Hofstra’s Loren Stokes, drawing a one-game suspension. The Patriots seemed to have NIT written all over them.
Hofstra, meanwhile, awaited an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after losing in the conference tournament championship to UNC Wilmington. But it never came.
Instead, the commuter school from Fairfax, Va., was selected for an at-large bid. Thanks in part to a victory at Wichita State, the Patriots finished with an RPI of 26 — higher than any CAA team, including Hofstra (30).
“I was kidding with one of my assistants,” head coach Jim Larrañaga said later, “we’re not just an at-large team, we’re an at-extra-large.”
And one that did not belong in the NCAA Tournament, according to CBS analyst Billy Packer, among others.
“(Jim) Nantz and Packer helped us out,” assistant coach Scott Cherry told CBSSports.com this year. “Those guys came right out and said we didn’t belong, we shouldn’t have been there. It was a bad choice, that the committee made a huge mistake. … Our guys already had fuel in their tank, and when they said that, it was all we needed.”
The 11th-seeded Patriots opened with a 75-65 upset over No. 6-seed Michigan State and followed with a 65-60 victory against No. 3-seed North Carolina. The Patriots rallied after falling behind 16-2 against a team with four future NBA draft selections.
Then the Patriots beat Wichita State for the second time in a month, jumping out to a big early lead and holding off the Shockers, 63-55. That put them in the Elite Eight against No. 1 seed UConn in the Washington, D.C., Regional final.
“If we win today,” Larrañaga quipped, “we’re going to be an at-extra-double-large.”
The Patriots pulled off an extra-double-large upset, stunning Rudy Gay and the Huskies 86-84 in overtime in the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
Playing a virtual home game in Washington, just across the Potomac River from Fairfax, the Patriots “overcame their deficiencies with heart and tenacity,” The Associated Press reported. “Throughout the game, chants of ‘G-M-U’ and ‘Let’s Go Mason!’ reverberated off the ceiling of the Verizon Center.”
They trailed at halftime but pulled within one early in the second half with an 8-0 run. Six consecutive 3-pointers, including Skinn’s with five minutes remaining, gave the Patriots a 67-63 lead.
But a steal by UConn’s Marcus Williams and three-point play cut their lead to 71-70 with 47 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Patriots also missed three free throws in the final minute and a reverse layup at the buzzer by UConn’s Denham Brown tied the game at 74.
Folarin Campbell gave the Patriots an 84-80 lead in overtime, but Jai Lewis missed three free throws in the frantic final 15 seconds to give UConn a final chance to win or tie. But Brown missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
All five Patriots starters played the final 16 minutes and finished in double figures, led by Lewis with 20 points. Lamar Butler, named the regional’s most outstanding player, and Will Thomas scored 19 apiece.
They also outrebounded UConn, 37-34, despite the Huskies having three starters taller than any of the Patriots’ frontcourt players.
Larrañaga stoked his team throughout the game, telling his players during timeouts that UConn’s players didn’t know George Mason’s conference.
“That’s a little bit of disrespect,” Skinn said after the game. “Coach told us the CAA stands for ‘Connecticut Assassin Association.'”
In the Final Four, the Patriots’ Cinderella run ended with a 73-58 loss to Florida. But every March Madness since has raised a bracket-busting question: “Who will be this year’s George Mason?”
After beating half of the 2005 Final Four (Michigan State and North Carolina) and dispatching the two previous two national champions (UConn in 2004 and North Carolina in 2005), the Patriots lost to the eventual national champions. And the Gators, who beat UCLA in the 2006 title game, repeated as national champions in 2007.
The Patriots have been back to the NCAA Tournament twice since, winning a first-round game in 2011. Larrañaga left for Miami in 2011 and George Mason left the CAA for the Atlantic 10 in 2013.
But everyone still remembers Larrañaga’s “Connecticut Assassin Association.”
“I got chillbumps on me right now even talking about this,” James Johnson, an assistant on that team, said this year. “Absolute joy. Still to this day.”
And 10 years from now, they’ll still be talking about the 2006 Patriots.
On the cover: George Mason celebrates their win over UConn in the Washington, D.C., Regional finals of the NCAA Tournament on March 26, 2006 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The Patriots won in overtime, 86-84. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Coastal Carolina (update) and Florida International
• Tuesday: Fordham and Furman
• Wednesday: Gardner-Webb and George Mason
• Thursday: George Washington and Grand Canyon
• Friday: Green Bay and Harvard