Insane as it would have sounded two weeks ago, George Mason won its Sweet 16 game last night the moment its name popped up in the Washington Regional back on selection Sunday.
Yet there was nothing crazy about it once yesterday dawned and the city began to revel in the realization that the team that so many said shouldn't even have been invited was playing a home game for a berth in the Elite Eight.
At halftime, George Mason led 35-19, and that's why the 11th-seeded Patriots won, why they're playing again tomorrow, trying to beat Connecticut and prolong the biggest Cinderella story the NCAA tournament has ever seen. Mason proved to be a very good team - good enough to make Wichita State look surprisingly bad - but the home cooking made it even better.
Wichita State, the No. 7 seed and pride (the remaining pride, at least) of the hot, trendy mid-major Missouri Valley Conference, was swallowed in the tidal wave of hometown love. The Mason supporters, legitimate and bandwagon-jumpers alike, made sure that the rarest of home-court advantages would not be wasted. From the moment they started clogging the streets around the arena and spilling out of the subways a good two hours before tip-off, the upstarts from northern Virginia hollered and screamed and jumped and danced and showed their face paint and pompoms and wigs and every scrap of green-and-gold clothing available in the metropolitan area.
It's safe to say, of course, that a healthy portion of the crowd came into the District from the other direction, because last night's entire starting five once again (with Tony Skinn back in his normal position) consisted of players from Maryland.
It's also safe to say that portion was loyal to their Patriots almost to a fault, considering that when, at halftime, the NCAA brought last season's Maryland national champion women's field hockey team onto the court to be honored, they were greeted by scattered boos.
But the real slap from the home crowd had long ago been delivered to Wichita State. The noise only grew as the arena filled, and by tip-off, it was at a postseason pitch (not something this building is familiar with). It took a minute for both teams to calm down, but then ... three-pointer, Lamar Butler; three-pointer, Folarin Campbell; another three-pointer, Campbell.
Timeout Wichita State, 2:23 gone, and for all intents and purposes, game gone. It was Mason 9, Wichita State 0. Or, Verizon Center 9-0, or the entire D.C., Maryland and Virginia area 9-0.
"To have that sort of [support] - even the D.C. metro area has kind of adopted this team, with the kind of exposure we've gotten," coach Jim Larranaga gushed afterward. "And it got us off to the fast start."
For the rest of that half, George Mason could hardly miss, and Wichita State, which beat Seton Hall and Tennessee on the way here, could hardly make. The players who carried the Shockers to the regular-season conference title, an at-large bid and those two upsets, shriveled up.
Sean Ogirri, a hero against Seton Hall with 23 points, didn't score in the first half. Paul Miller - the 6-foot-10 center, the best big man on the floor by far for either team and his conference's Player of the Year - scored four points in the half. Wichita State missed 11 of its first 15 shots and 21 of 30 in the half, including 10 of its 11 three-pointers, a testament to precisely what the Patriots were forcing them to do. Meanwhile, Mason was hitting threes as if the line were five feet away.
Just past the midway point of the half - after Ogirri had air-balled a three from in front of the Patriots bench and after a pair of free throws by Gabe Norwood - George Mason led 22-9. The Patriots hadn't even committed a foul.
The atmosphere only got more electric, with fans chanting for their school, for individual players, for their conference ("C-A-A!") and, late in the half, singing along with a well-timed pep band rendition of Bon Jovi's "Living On a Prayer."
Actually, the song might not have been all that appropriate; the sing-along took place in the middle of a Wichita State scoreless stretch of 5 1/2 minutes, during which the Patriots pushed a nine-point lead to 17. Defense made that happen; George Mason looked as if it were playing seven-on-five, arms and legs all over the place.
In reality, the Patriots were playing 19,000-on-five. Wichita State, and its hardy faithful (including two of its legends, Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel), got overwhelmed.
It wasn't wholly unexpected, but it was still stunning. If it happens again tomorrow, it might be even less unexpected. It's not midnight yet for George Mason, and this time, the dance isn't at the palace, it's at her own house.
Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog