WASHINGTON,March 24 – Friday night's Sweet Sixteen game between George Mason and Wichita State tipped off at 7:27. By 7:30,it was virtually over.
In a Verizon Center filled predominantly with Patriot yellow and green,George Mason's Lamar Butler and Folarin Campbell got hot early,hitting two 3-pointers in the first two minutes. Seconds later,Tony Skinn stole the ball,then passed to Campbell for another 3-pointer. And just like that it was 9-0 with 17:37 to play in the first half.
The Patriot fans sang “Livin' on a Prayer,” the Shockers never got closer than seven and Butler,Campbell and Skinn kept No. 11-seed George Mason's Final Four prayers alive with a 63-55 victory over No. 7-seed Wichita State.
“We're having a helluva a lot of fun,” said GMU coach Jim Larranaga,whose team is playing just 20 miles from its campus in Fairfax,Va. “This team's excited about playing ball … and I think it's helped us being back in D.C.”
It's been a year full of firsts for Larranaga and George Mason. His Patriots recorded the school's first NCAA tournament win,the first 25-win season and the first trip to the regional semifinals. Now he and the team can add an Elite Eight appearance to the list as they advance to face the winner of Connecticut and Washington in Sunday's regional final.
George Mason shot an impressive eight for16 from the 3-point line,and the trio of Campbell,Skinn and Butler hit seven of those to combine for 44 points. On the other hand,Wichita State,a team that hit 19 of 37 from behind the arc in its previous games against Tennessee and Seton Hall,shot an abysmal 12.5 percent from 3-point range.
“I didn't think we played the way that led us to … a Sweet Sixteen,” Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon said. “We played well on defense,holding them to just 63 points,but our offense wasn't there,and that was the difference.”
Shockers guard Sean Ogirri gave credit to George Mason's swarming perimeter defense for holding him and teammate P.J. Couisnard to just 12 points.
“We didn't play together,and personally,when I was open,I didn't make shots,” said the sophomore,who was held under double digits for the first time this tournament. “They got through screens well,and I just didn't feel like I could elevate and get a shot.”
While the first half was all George Mason,Wichita State did show signs of life in the second half as Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Paul Miller led runs of 7-0 and 8-2 to pull the Shockers within striking distance.
Miller,playing in his final collegiate game,scored 14 of his game-tying high 16 in the second half,but his team's comeback was halted once by a high-flying slam from sophomore Will Thomas,who had a 10-point,10-rebound night,and finally by fellow sophomore Jordan Carter's lone 3-pointer with seven minutes to play.
With the game secure in the final minutes,Butler pulled down a rebound and hugged the ball with delight,soaking in all the excitement.
“I was just recalling everyone saying we weren't supposed to be (in the Sweet Sixteen),” the senior said. “I was just feeling the rush from my head down to my feet.”
Sunday's Elite Eight game will be the first time a team from the Colonial Athletic Association has made the regional semis since then-CAA member Navy did it in 1986. That team lost to Duke,but Campbell said he's ready for the challenge of making it to Indianapolis.
“I fee like every time we go out on the court we've got something to prove,” the senior said.