WASHINGTON -- As the game clock expired last night, George Mason senior guard Lamar Butler hugged the basketball and pumped his right fist in the air, a huge grin spread across his face. He made eye contact with his father in the stands and said he recalled "everyone saying we weren't even supposed to be here."
Turns out they're staying a little longer.
Last night, just 20 miles away from its campus in Fairfax, Va., George Mason (26-7) continued its improbable run through this year's NCAA tournament with a 63-55 win over Wichita State (26-9) in the Washington Regional semifinal at Verizon Center.
"It was just an adrenaline rush from my head down to my toes. It was an awesome feeling," said Butler, who made three of four free throws in the final 31 seconds to seal the win. "It's an awesome feeling."
Gregarious, laid-back coach Jim Larranaga whistled through his teeth before trotting over to wave to the green-and-yellow-clad Patriots fans who, for the third time in eight days, witnessed school history.
No. 11 George Mason, which one week ago got its first-ever NCAA tournament win, will face Connecticut in the regional final. The Patriots have knocked off Michigan State and defending national champion North Carolina. Yesterday, they became the first No. 11 seed to reach the Elite Eight since Temple in 2001.
"We're having a hell of a lot of fun," said Larranaga, who has been singing and dancing at practices. "This team is good and loose and excited about playing basketball. ... The whole D.C. metro area has adopted this team. We're all just loving it."
George Mason, which has struggled from the free-throw line all tournament, made five of six in the waning minutes to salvage what was once a 19-point lead. With less than a minute to play, though, the Shockers had chopped it to eight.
"Although we were never able to really hit them with a knockout punch, the credit goes to them for staying with the game and fighting back and keeping it close," Larranaga said.
No. 7 seed Wichita State, in its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1981, had two players who had transferred into the program with tournament experience, but it was George Mason that played as if it had been here before.
The Patriots came onto the court loose, looking as if they were ready to tip off in the BB&T; Classic like they did at this arena in December. Mason made three quick three-pointers for a 9-0 start and never trailed.
It was quite a different tone from the last time these teams met this season.
In February, Wichita State was the team that helped the Patriots into the NCAA tournament, and yesterday, was the one that kept them in it.
On Feb. 18, Tony Skinn scored the winning three-pointer against Wichita State on the Shockers' home court, and many pointed to that victory as the one that sealed the at-large bid for George Mason.
Skinn, who did not start the past two games for disciplinary reasons, was reinserted into the starting lineup last night. He finished with 14 points and four assists.
"We knew what they were capable of doing," Skinn said. "We wanted to come out and set the tone for the defense. We came out and jumped up on them. We had a 9-0 run and that set the tone for the game and took them out of their offense a little bit. They fought back, but we were able to hold onto the lead."
George Mason was ahead 39-20 with 17:18 left to play, but the Shockers continued to chip away, and with less than eight minutes to play, Wichita State had cut the lead to 10 points.
Sophomore guard Jordan Carter, a sophomore trying to play his way back to his hometown of Indianapolis, made the Patriots' eighth and final three-pointer of the night at the seven-minute mark and Baltimore native Will Thomas followed with a basket for a 50-35 lead. Thomas, from Mount St. Joseph, finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Folarin Campbell led the Patriots with 16 points, including 3-for-6 from three-point range.
George Mason, a team that came into the game averaging 5.8 three-pointers a game, made seven three-pointers in the first half. George Mason led by as many as 18 points in the first half and went to the locker room leading 35-19. The Patriots scored just five two-point baskets.
Witchita State out-rebounded the Patriots 43-32 but shot just 31.3 percent from the field.
"Our defense was good enough tonight, it really was," Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon said. "Our offense wasn't there tonight, and that was the difference in the game."