March 17, 2006
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) - George Mason sure proved it belonged in the NCAA tournament.
Despite critical comments by some experts that it should not have gotten an at-large berth, the 11th-seeded Patriots used hot shooting, a balanced attack and a surprising rebounding superiority to upset sixth-seeded Michigan State 75-65 Friday night in the first round.
Losers in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, the Patriots (24-7) had to hold their breath when the brackets were announced. Then they had to hold their tongue when many questioned why a team from the lightly regarded CAA would get an at-large bid over heavyweights such as Cincinnati of the Big East and the ACC's Florida State.
Folarin Campbell scored 21 points and made all eight of his shots from the field, Will Thomas had 18 points and 14 rebounds and Lamar Butler and Jai Lewis each had 13 points for George Mason.
In his last three games, Thomas has scored a career-high 21, followed by games of 19, 17 and now 18. Over those four games, he has made just under 75 percent of his shots from the field.
The Patriots didn't make it easy on themselves, hitting just 10 of 21 free throws over the final 3 1/2 minutes. But they made 59 percent of their shots from the field (29-of-49).
Based on tournament history, it should have been a mismatch. The Patriots had never won an NCAA tournament game in three tries while the Spartans (22-12) had been to four Final Fours in the last seven years.
Ager hit the Patriots with his best shot, scoring 10 consecutive points and 13 of 15 to lead the Spartans back to a 52-51 lead with 6:41 left.
George Mason wouldn't go away, though.
Campbell hit a 15-foot jumper and after MSU's Matt Trannon was called for his fourth foul at the offensive end, Butler picked up a loose ball and drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing. Ager misfired on a 3 before Thomas scored in traffic to make it 58-52. Thomas then blocked Davis' shot and Campbell popped in another 3 for a 61-52 lead.
The lead never dropped below six points again.
The Patriots, who have won 17 of their last 20, lost both previous meetings with Michigan State, including a 66-60 loss in a holiday tournament two years ago that they said proved they could play with the perennial powerhouse.
They were outrebounded 39-22 in that game and coach Jim Larranaga spent all this week preaching that his players had to pound the boards to stay in the game.
They got the message, turning the tables for a 40-14 rebounding advantage against a taller opponent.
George Mason used a 8-0 run early in the second half to take a 45-37 lead and then stuck to their game plan - banging the boards, playing ferocious defense and being patient on offense - to pull off the upset.
George Mason, winless in its previous NCAA trips in 1989, 1999 and 2001, certainly got the Spartans' attention in the opening half by taking a 33-30 lead.
The Patriots led most of the game despite playing without their second-leading scorer, Tony Skinn. Skinn, averaging almost 13 points a game, was suspended by George Mason for punching a Hofstra player in the groin during a CAA semifinal two weeks ago. Skinn is also the Patriots' top perimeter defender.