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Laurel graduate recalls final four basketball appearance

Laurel graduate recalls final four basketball appearance
Laurel High graduate John Vaughn was on the 2006 George Mason University team that went to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four, but he couldn’t play in the tournament because he tore his ACL. (Photo courtesy of George Mason University)

In the late summer of 2005, the George Mason University men's basketball was scheduled to do conditioning drills when a member of the team didn't show up for a physical, according to Laurel High graduate John Vaughn.

But the team was somehow able to get out of the punishment and instead coaches had members of the team take part in open gym at the on-campus facility in Fairfax, Virginia.

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"It was one time I wish we would have to do the conditioning," said Vaughn, who was an all-Colonial Athletic Association rookie team player as a freshman at Mason in 2004-05.

That was because it was during that session that Vaughn, a former basketball and football standout at Laurel High, tore his ACL and was forced to miss the 2005-06 season.

Vaughn, a Baltimore native who grew up in Laurel, missed more than just the season: he had to forego a part of history.

Mason, now in the Atlantic 10 Conference, didn't win the CAA tournament in 2006 and was a controversial pick to some as an at-large selection to the NCAA tournament.

But the upstart Patriots shocked the college basketball world as they upset powerhouse programs Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut on the way to the Final Four.

"All of the pressure would fall on them," Vaughn said of the upset over UConn for the region title that took place at what is now the Verizon Center in Washington.

"We knew that 90 percent were Mason fans," he said.

Vaughn was able to travel with Mason throughout the NCAA tournament and was allowed to take part in warm-up drills by then-head coach Jim Larranaga in some games even though he knew he couldn't play.

"I thought it was a pretty neat gesture," Vaughn said of Larranaga, now the head coach at Miami of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The miracle run by Mason ended with a loss to eventual national champion Florida in the Final Four.

But those memories 10 years ago this month have stayed with Vaughn.

"At the end of the day when all else fails you have to play for each other," Vaughn said. "Coaches can only do so much. When you step in between the white lines you have to have what it takes."

Vaughn relays some of those lessons today as a youth basketball coach in Northern Virginia, where he has guided an eighth-grade travel program, Great Falls Select. He lives in nearby McLean, Virginia and works in real estate.

Vaughn said he keeps in touch with several of his former teammates from George Mason, including some playing overseas.

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The Mason starters during the Final Four run were all from Maryland: Tony Skinn (Takoma Park); Folarin Campbell (Silver Spring); Will Thomas (Baltimore), a product of Mt. St. Joseph; Lamar Butler (Fort Washington) and Jai Lewis (Aberdeen).

"We had a lot of doubters as far as our team and people doubted us," said Lewis, now a behavioral specialist at Halstead Academy in Parkville, Baltimore County. "We were a mid-major; nobody thought we could compete against UConn" and its future NBA players.

Skinn played for his native Nigeria in the 2012 London Olympics and is an assistant at Louisiana Tech.

Butler was an assistant coach this season at St. John's College High in Washington, D.C., while Thomas (Spain) and Campbell (Poland) are still playing overseas.

One key for the team in 2005-06 was when Larranaga and his staff moved Campbell to point guard and put Skinn at the off-guard spot early in the season.

"I thought we needed better balance. Folarin would be willing to get the ball to guys inside and not worry about how many shots he took," Larranaga said last month.

Vaughn would go on to play three more seasons at Mason and was able to play in the NCAA tournament in 2008.

In his last season he was a second-team all-CAA player.

He graduated in 2009 and had tryouts with a few NBA teams, including the New York Knicks, but never played pro ball.

While all five starters from the 2006 team eventually played overseas, Vaughn never had the opportunity.

"I made a poor choice in agent representation. That kind of hampered my (pro) career before it even started. I take responsibility for it," he said.

While Vaughn missed out in some ways, he was still along for a magical ride. "When we stepped between those white lines we came together," he said. "I think we adopted that mentality very well."

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