DAYTON, Ohio -- When Jim Larranaga was a boy in the Bronx, he didn't carry around a key to his family's apartment. His mother didn't want that. He couldn't just knock on the door, either. Anyone could be on the other side. So Larranaga developed a whistle that was loud enough to pierce through the day-to-day noise of his busy Bronx neighborhood. When his mom heard that whistle, she opened the door. Nobody else could whistle like that.
|Jim Larranaga looks to the crowd after the Patriots knock off North Carolina. (AP)|
Until Friday, when the Patriots beat sixth-seeded Michigan State, they'd never won an NCAA Tournament game. Until Sunday, nobody in the current construction of the Colonial Athletic Association had reached the Sweet 16.
The Patriots are there now, and not because they were lucky enough to run into two good teams having two bad games. Michigan State and North Carolina played badly, true, but there's a reason: George Mason did it to them.
George Mason was better than Final Four mainstay Michigan State and, despite trailing 16-2, better than defending national champion North Carolina. George Mason is returning to Washington, D.C., not in defeat, but in preparation for a Sweet 16 game thanks to a coach who whistles when he works in a way you've got to hear to believe. Some coaches stomp their feet. Some yell or clap or don't even bother trying to fight the noise. Some just make hand signals or wave signs from the bench.
Larranaga whistles, piercing through the crowd of 12,945 like an air horn.
"Wherever you are, you can hear it," said George Mason junior guard Gabe Norwood. "Nobody on the team can imitate it. I don't think anyone has ever tried. He's got the copyright on that whistle."
With Larranaga whistling out defensive changes, George Mason confounded the young Tar Heels with a diet of changing looks. The Patriots were passive to start the game, and the result was that 16-2 UNC lead. Trailing 27-20 to start the second half, George Mason went to its trademark scramble defense and the result was hard on the eyes. North Carolina, the basketball factory from the ACC, crumpled against this tiny team from the CAA. Six consecutive possessions, six consecutive turnovers. George Mason took a 28-27 lead early in the second half, and the Patriots controlled the final 18 minutes. Even with their pressure extending to halfcourt, the Patriots had enough quickness to guard the baseline as well: UNC All-American center Tyler Hansbrough, who scored eight points in the first half, had just two in the second. After that 16-2 deficit, George Mason outscored the Tar Heels 63-44. That's domination.
"I don't think that was a fluke," said George Mason guard Tony Skinn. "Do you think that was a fluke?"
Absolutely not. And if Skinn seems more than a little pleased, forgive him. He's the guy who punched a Hofstra player below the belt in the conference tournament, drawing a one-game suspension and jeopardizing the Patriots' NCAA Tournament hopes. The thinking -- and it was sound -- went like this: While the Patriots clearly were worthy of an NCAA bid with Tony Skinn, they'd be playing their NCAA first-round game without him. Maybe, given the presence of another strong CAA at-large contender (Hofstra), the selection committee would keep the Skinn situation in mind and hand George Mason's bid to Hofstra.
Larranaga was prepared for just such a scenario. He invited the team to his house for the Selection Sunday show and made sure Skinn was sitting between himself and his wife, Liz. Finally, late in the show and at the bottom of the bracket, the words George Mason appeared.
Jim Larranaga hugged Skinn. Liz rubbed his shoulder. Soon the entire team was surrounding Skinn, hugging him and patting his head. When the bodies cleared out of the way, Skinn was wiping tears from his face.
"A beautiful moment," Liz Larranaga said Sunday.