DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—Michigan State? Gone. Defending national champion North Carolina? Gone, too.
Any more questions about whether George Mason belongs in the NCAA tournament?
Didn’t think so.
The upstart Patriots turned Carolina a whole different shade of blue Sunday, knocking the third-seeded Tar Heels out with a 65-60 victory that set up a mid-major matchup in the round of 16.
George Mason (25-7) will play Wichita State on Friday in the Washington Regional semifinals, pitting the Colonial Athletic Association against the Missouri Valley’s regular-season champion. The Patriots won 70-67 at Wichita State last month.
“There’s been talk about the Missouri Valley all year,” said Lamar Butler, who led the Patriots with 18 points. “Hardly anyone has talked about the CAA. It’s hard to believe we’re both in the Sweet 16.”
Not for Michigan State or Carolina, the two pedigree programs that got upset — if that’s the right term—by an at-large team from an overlooked league. George Mason is the first Colonial Athletic team to make the round of 16 since Richmond did it in 1988, and only the third overall.
This one has everything it takes to play with the big boys. That was coach Jim Larranaga’s message to his green-uniformed team before the opening tip.
“The last comment I made to them was, ‘What color is kryptonite?”’ Larranaga said. “They said, ‘Green.’ I said, ‘Look at your jerseys. You have everything you need to win this game.”’
Carolina showed it wasn’t anything like the super team that won the NCAA tournament last year. The Tar Heels (23-8) lost their top seven scorers from that team, forcing coach Roy Williams to use four freshmen much more than he’d prefer.
Three of them were on the floor at various times Sunday, and played down to their age for the first time since early in the season.
“We’re going to cry about it, be sad, but it just wasn’t our time,” said senior forward David Noel, who was on the floor for the final seconds of last year’s title game.
Nimble forwards Will Thomas and Jai Lewis dominated up front, and the Patriots shocked the Tar Heels by going to a newly installed zone defense in the first half to climb out of a 16-2 hole.
In the second half, the Patriots went back to their man-to-man and beat the Tar Heels straight up, making most of the clutch shots. Their poise and balance helped them make a point.
“I think a lot of experts expected them to dominate us,” Larranaga said. “We have enough faith and confidence in ourselves that we’re not listening to the experts and the so-called prognosticators.”
Carolina faded down the stretch, missing four straight shots and repeatedly fouling. George Mason went 9-of-12 from the line in the final 3 minutes to pull away.
It was yet another second-round stunner for Williams, who suffered one of his worst in the same arena 16 years ago. His Kansas team was considered a title contender in 1992, but got knocked off by Texas-El Paso in the second round.
Williams was so upset as it wound down Sunday that he picked up his folding chair and slammed it down courtside. He tried everything, even yelling at his team during a timeout to try to fire it up. Nothing worked.
He also made a significant coaching mistake, putting his team in a press during a late timeout because he thought Carolina was down by three. Instead, the score was tied at 54. George Mason broke the press and Butler was fouled, going to the line for two free throws that put the Patriots ahead to stay.
Williams sniffled while he recounted his late-game blunder. Then, he thought about what his young team had accomplished.
“They’re an unbelievable group of kids that took me for a great ride,” Williams said.
This one will leave the Tar Heels blue for some time. That quartet of freshmen had them thinking another deep tournament run was possible, especially after they scored Carolina’s last 29 points in an opening-round win over Murray State.
On Sunday, they combined for only 20 and looked like freshmen in the second half, which started with a tone-setting 8-0 run by George Mason.
Thomas and Lewis repeatedly drove for layups and bank shots against Carolina’s front line, sparking the comeback. The Patriots also took Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough out of the game by double- and triple-teaming him.
Hansbrough, who set a Carolina freshman record with 14 20-point games this season, was only 4-of-11 from the field when he went to the bench with his third foul and 13:08 remaining. He finished with 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
“They sent a lot of guys after me,” Hansbrough said. “That was part of their plan.”
There was some nice coaching by George Mason, too. Larranaga installed a zone defense last week, figuring his man-to-man team would need it to keep up in the tournament.
He unveiled the zone after Carolina’s opening 16-2 run, and the Tar Heels bogged down. North Carolina shot 36 percent from the field and got to the line for a total of four free throws in the game.
Afterward, Larranaga remembered what he told his team before the NCAA selection show one week earlier at his home.
“If we make the tournament,” he told his players, “we’ll be given an opportunity to prove ourselves in front of the entire nation.”