NCAA

The Big Twenty: George Mason's Final Four run changed the college hoops world

The Big Twenty: George Mason's Final Four run changed the college hoops world

NBC Sports Washington is rolling out the 20 biggest stories in DMV sports in the past 20 years. Here is No. 8.

When March Madness circles around every year there is always one question on everyone’s mind: Who is going to be the next Cinderella story? 

Or before these fairytale runs became more frequent: Which team is going to be the next George Mason? 

In 2006 the George Mason Patriots from Fairfax, Va made their improbable run to the Final Four, taking down behemoths of the sport in the process. The Patriots toppled Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to become the CAA’s first-ever representative in the Final Four. Each upset more far-fetched than the last.

Their accomplishment was nothing ever seen before from a non-traditional program.

Loyola Marymount’s 1990 push to the Elite Eight was the furthest any program of its kind had reached.  A mid-major going to the Final Four? That was inconceivable. George Mason did it, and they did against the best in college basketball. They battled through a sea of bluebloods, capturing America’s heart in the process.   

They also indirectly stole my heart and changed how the rest of my life would transpire. 

Seeing Lamar Butler grab the lose rebound at the buzzer and skipping over to the corner of the court after beating one of Jim Calhoun’s dominant Connecticut teams is one of my earliest sports memories. A point to the crowd and a couple of Butler’s body-controlled fist-pumps are all I prominently have stored in my memory bank from that contest. Shameful, really, for how much the game likely transformed the rest my life.

I watched the game from afar and like any middle schooler of the time had my newspaper bracket nearby. The result had no bearing on how I did, I had North Carolina – who Mason beat two rounds prior – in the Final Four. Little did I know that less than 15 years later that school, and perhaps that moment, had such a huge bearing in my life. 

George Mason was the lone in-state, public university I applied for during my senior year of high school. As a courtesy to my parents, I sent in an application to the suburban-D.C. institution simply because I knew of their famous flash-in-the-pan Final Four run. 

Well, it all worked out and I became a Patriot. I’m a two-time graduate of the school (2016, BA; 2019 MA). They gave me my first post-graduate job while also paying for my second degree. Spending a better-part of a decade at the school, I also met my fiancé there. By George, that school gave me a lot and who knows what would have happened had Denham Brown’s three went in for UConn that day. 

George Mason is the ultimate Cinderella Story. Sure, Jim Valvano’s 1983 N.C. State squad won a title as a No. 6 seed along with several other underdog programs. N.C. State, though, is far different than George Mason. Outside the state of Virginia, no one knew who the Patriots were and that all changed in March of 2006.

My story is not the only one. After Mason’s historic feat, it soon became less of a rarity. Butler, VCU and Loyola-Chicago all have all since followed with magical runs of their own. The Patriots blazed the trail for future mid-majors and each year we will all be looking for another to follow in their footsteps. 

But it all started with the Patriots and ever since the dream has been alive.  
 

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March Madness Revisited: No. 16 seed UMBC makes history with win over No. 1 Virginia

March Madness Revisited: No. 16 seed UMBC makes history with win over No. 1 Virginia

History was not on UMBC’s side as it entered its showdown against top seeded Virginia on March 16, 2018 looking to become the first 16-seed to knock off a number one seed in NCAA Tournament history. 

“All we had talked about leading up to that game was numbers really don’t matter,” UMBC head coach Ryan Odom said on NBC Sports Radio. “It just takes one night.”

But that historic evening when everything went right in a stunning 74-54 win over the Cavaliers, one of the great upsets in sports ever, almost did not happen.

The University of Maryland-Baltimore County, like most mid-major basketball programs, needed to win its conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. UMBC went 12-4 in America East play but lost both of its games against Vermont. The Catamounts finished 15-1 in conference play, cruising past UMBC in each of its regular season meetings and earned the right to host the America East championship game. 

Tied at 62, Silver Spring native and DeMatha Catholic alum Jairus Lyles buried a 3-pointer with less than a second to play to send UMBC dancing for the first time in a decade. 

Prior to that victory, the Retrievers had lost 23 straight games against Vermont.  

Now the stage was set. UMBC was the No. 16 seed in the East Region and would face 31-2 Virginia. The Cavaliers won the ACC regular season and tournament championship in 2018. Virginia was also voted No. 1 in the final five weeks of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. This was a total mismatch on paper.  

But after one half of basketball on a Friday night in Raleigh, N.C., UMBC and Virginia were tied at 21. This didn’t look like much of a mismatch anymore.  

“The way we felt about [the game] at halftime was we’re 20 minutes away from history,” Odom said. “It would be a shame if we got too excited or too far away from the game plan.” 

Far from it. The Retrievers opened the second half with a 17-3 run that left everyone in the building stunned and never looked back. UMBC finished the evening with 53 second half points. 

The Cavaliers had allowed 53.4 points per game in 2017-18, tops in the nation. And 15 of Virginia’s previous 33 opponents scored less than 53 points in a game. It was a defensive powerhouse, but that all fell apart against the Retrievers those final 20 minutes as the possibility of an upset drew closer.  

“Both teams really struggled scoring in that first half and that gave us, ironically, some confidence going into the second half,” Odom recalled. “We felt like at that point we could play with them. If we could start hitting some of the shots we were getting in the first half, that we would have a legitimate shot to stay in the game. Obviously it turned out a little different than that and we did more than just hang in.”

How did this happen? Was there a perfect locker room speech? Nope. 

“We approached it the same way we would have any other game,” Odom said. “That particular team was very experienced in a lot of ways.” 

The Retrievers did have an ingredient that is common in many upsets in the NCAA Tournament: Quality guard play. It’s almost impossible to pull off an upset of that magnitude without it.  

“You know how it is, guards win games in college basketball,” Odom said. “We had three really good ones that were able to outplay really good players, guys that went on the next year to win the national championship.” 

UMBC’s backcourt of Lyles, K.J. Maura, and Jourdan Grant combined for 46 points. Lyles led all scorers with 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field. 

Following the jubilation of making history, UMBC needed to turn its attention to Kansas State. 

Less than 48 hours after shooting 67.9% from the field in the second half against the top-ranked defensive team in the nation, the Retrievers scored just 43 points in 40 minutes and went 14-of-47 from the floor. UMBC still trailed the Wildcats by just three points with under 90 seconds to play before ultimately falling 50-43. 

“We’re all proud about the Virginia game but we think more about the Kansas State than [the Virginia Game],” Odom said. “Would I have like some more shots to go in? Absolutely. It would have been special to make it to the Sweet 16. But certainly...no regrets.”

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On this day 36 years ago, Patrick Ewing, Georgetown top Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston for only national championship in program history

On this day 36 years ago, Patrick Ewing, Georgetown top Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston for only national championship in program history

Patrick Ewing looked on helplessly as his eighth-seeded Georgetown Hoyas melted down in the second half of their Big East tournament game against No. 9 St. John’s on March 11, losing in the first round after blowing a double-digit lead.

The loss effectively ended the Hoyas’ season with a 15-17 record, marking what would’ve been the fifth straight year Georgetown missed out on the NCAA Tournament field -- had the rest of the season not been canceled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It was a far cry from the performances of Ewing’s playing days, when Georgetown was a national powerhouse. And exactly 36 years ago from Thursday, that dominance peaked with the first and only national championship in Georgetown history.

Long before Ewing starred for the New York Knicks during a Hall of Fame NBA career, one in which he averaged 21.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 17 seasons, the 7-foot center stepped onto Georgetown's campus in 1981 as the crown jewel of what some considered to be the best recruiting class that year.

Prior to his arrival, the Hoyas were just turning the corner as a program. Legendary coach John Thompson guided the team to five NCAA Tournament appearances in the previous seven seasons after it had made just one appearance all-time -- losing in the 1943 national championship. 

But once Ewing stepped on campus, the Hoyas transformed into perennial national championship contenders.

Georgetown reached the title game in three of Ewing's four years at the school, including his freshman season when they lost to a North Carolina team led by Michael Jordan and James Worthy. But two years later, on April 2, 1984, Georgetown defeated Houston 84-75 to finally clinch its first and only national championship in program history.

Houston, led by the great Hakeem Olajuwon and leading scorer Michael Young, was a formidable foe, having made the Final Four the previous two seasons and losing in the national championship in 1983. The Cougars’ Alvin Franklin scored a game-high 21 points, but they didn’t have the depth to keep up with a Georgetown team that got contributions from all over.

Five players scored in double-digits for the Hoyas, including a team-high 19 points off the bench from freshman Reggie Williams. Michael Graham, who was named to the 1984 All-Tournament team along with Ewing, Olajuwon, Franklin and Young, added 14 off the bench. David Wingate had 16 and Michael Jackson scored 11 points with 6 assists for the Hoyas.

Ewing, who had 10 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks, came out victorious against Olajuwon in the battle of giants and was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Olajuwon finished with 15 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks.

Ewing's final stat line that season: 16.4 points, 66% FG, 10.0 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, and he was a first-team All-American playing for a Georgetown team that finished the season 34-3.

The following year, Georgetown made it back to the championship but was upset by an eighth-seeded Villanova. Ewing was selected first overall in the NBA draft that summer, but the Hoyas still enjoyed prominence as one of college basketball’s darling programs for several years after his departure.

Today, much of that luster has faded, which is why Ewing mans the sideline as coach now in hopes of guiding the Hoyas to the promised land again. But on this day 36 years ago, it was more than a dream. They Hoyas were the NCAA Div. I men's basketball national champions.

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