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March 26, 2006

Lamar Butler

Folarin Campbell

Jim Larranaga

Jai Lewis

Tony Skinn

Will Thomas


JIM LARRANAGA: Well, the first thing I'd like to say is that I've been on the other side of this as the No. 1 seed and getting knocked out in the regional final. And can't say enough about the University of Connecticut, Coach Calhoun, his coaching staff and their team. They have obviously had an awesome season, and to fall one game short of the Final Four I'm sure was not what they were hoping for.
But I'm just to proud to be able to work with these guys and work for such a great institution and feel so honored to now be taking my own team after 20 years of trying to even just get an at-large bid. I was kidding with one of my assistants, "We're not just an at-large, we're an at-extra large and if we win today, we're going to be an at-double-extra-large." I can't tell you how much fun I'm having.
My last message to the team before we left the locker room because we believe very much in routines is I want to be playing baseball on Tuesday at the Patriot Center. That's what we've done the last two Tuesdays to finish out practice and I think they got the message.
Q. Obviously now people are going to call you all Cinderella going to the Final Four, but is it really possible for Cinderella to accomplish what you guys just accomplished, beating Carolina, Michigan State, Connecticut, eight National Championships between them; are you all really a Cinderella?
TONY SKIN: I think it's been working for us, calling us Cinderella. We were not supposed to get into the tournament, we got into it. We were not supposed to beat Michigan State and we beat them. Weren't supposed to beat Carolina and we beat them. Weren't supposed to beat Wichita State and we beat them. We definitely wasn't supposed to beat UCONN. I think we'll go stick to the script going into whoever we play whether it's Villanova or Florida, we don't mind being the Cinderella.
Q. At the end of the first half, UCONN had that explosive run that gave them a double-digit lead and they hit the shot at the end of regulation to send it to overtime, you can probably assume most of the nation thought, each team it's time for UCONN to take over. What was said both in the locker room at halftime and before overtime began to keep you guys on track and to keep you guys focused to stay, to keep it going?
JAI LEWIS: Coach just told us that -- before the game, he told us we're the Connecticut Assassin Association, the CAA. So every time he would talk, he'd just say CAA and we just knew what it meant. That was our motivation, every time-out, before the overtime or whatever it may be (laughter).
Q. Lamar, this antenna from your hat; is that a string?
Q. What do you plan to do with it? I take it you're going to keep it. On your 3s in the second half, can you describe a bit what it felt like to sink so many?
LAMAR BUTLER: The string, I've got two actually I'm going to keep it in my pocket wherever I go. I'm going to frame it and keep it on my wall, good safekeeping for winning the regional championships to go to the Final Four.
As far as the 3s, our teammate just did a good job of finding me. Once I passed the ball to Tony I thought he had a layup and I saw the guy cut him off, and I said, "Tony, Tony, wide open, pass it back." Just kept running, trying to get open and fortunately it just fell.
Q. You guys had success rebounding against Michigan State, and again tonight you're the only guy on the stat sheet that reached double digits, where does that come from and how much of that is attitude and emotion, as opposed to x's and o's?
WILL THOMAS: Rebounding for the team, that's what we came into this team wanting to do is outrebound, that's one of the keys to winning this game. We knew they go to the offensive rebounds, offensive boards and we just wanted to box out and get the rebounds. I think I just wanted the basketball more than them when the shot went out.
Q. The way UCONN came back and won the other day and the way they sent this game into overtime what went through your mind when Denham put that shot up at the end of the came?
FOLARIN CAMPBELL: I was the one shadowing, they have been hitting shots in my face the whole game (laughter). They are a good team, so when that last shot -- I mean, I wasn't sure who was going to try to go to the hole or pull back for the 3 so I just tried to get up on him and when he pulled up for that jumper, I put a hand in his face, I was just hoping and praying and it just went off it and it hit the side of the rim.
LAMAR BUTLER: First of all, Rashad Anderson, I was not going to let him catch the ball I saw what happened the other night. I was face guarding him, he was not going to get a shot by back-dooring me, I saw him looking at the clock, I said I'm going to make sure he's not going to pass it.
Q. With about three minutes left in regulation there was a time-out, I think you were up like 69-65 and Coach had told you all in the huddle, this is where we go and prove how hard we worked. Then he ended up by saying, "Am I the only one having fun or what?" And it seemed like in every huddle, there was never any panic, never any look ever frustration no matter what was going on. How does he keep you all so relaxed?
FOLARIN CAMPBELL: I feel we just go out there and have fun. Like what Coach said, just go out there and have fun. I mean we're all calm, poised and we just make sure we have fun. I mean, basketball was made to have fun. So if you ain't having fun, you're not going to perform. We all just make sure we're having fun and we come out -- we came out with a big victory.
Q. I didn't think it was possible to see you smiling more than you did the previous two days, can you describe the feeling and did you think it was possible to top the way you felt after the last game in the Sweet 16?
LAMAR BUTLER: I didn't think it was, but after beating UCONN on a stage like that at the Verizon Center and it was a chance to go to the Final Four to get to Indianapolis, when that final buzzer went off, that was just pure joy, indescribable joy. It just overwhelmed me. I looked at my father, he was smiling, crying. My mother, they were all crying. It was like a dream come true. I used to dream about that when I was a little kid, in front of my hometown, home fans, my family, it's indescribable?
Q. Yesterday you said that at one point in the game, UCONN is going to feel the pressure. When did you realize that you guys had them?
TONY SKIN: Honestly I thought we had them when I went to the free throw line but obviously I missed that free throw (laughter).
But this team has been playing like this all year. Coach has been stressing to us, just poise down the stretch. Going into overtime I knew we were going to be fine. We just had to play a harder five minutes than we had been playing the whole game. I actually had the chance to be in the backcourt with Rashad Anderson and I was talking to him a little bit because I think yesterday they said they were going to guarantee the Final Four, and I was asking him, "Still think y'all are going to Indianapolis?" Then Jai stepped to the free low line and Jai missed and he kept talking back to me. When Shaqs hit that shot, I said it right back to him, "Yeah, we're going to Indianapolis." I think right then and there he felt it, he wished us good luck. They are a great team.
Q. When you were recruited, you asked whether -- actually you said that you were going to take this team to the Final Four, can you talk about that?
LAMAR BUTLER: I think I was joking when I said that (laughter). I was joking, you know, enjoying the press with you guys. I started dreaming when I got to college. It shows you that anything can happen.
Q. Jai, can you tell us what was the issue with your ankle or foot, I'm not clear, in the second half. And also, just comment on playing against three guys, 6-9, 6-10, 6-11. They didn't seem to give you much trouble?
JAI LEWIS: I rolled my ankle in the first play in the second half. I've been having ankle problems for a while.
Playing against taller guys, you just have to play with heart, show more heart than the guy who is defending you. All year we've been playing against 6-9, 6-10, 6-11 and a couple seven-footers, you've just got to use your moves and go up in the air and get underneath them and get in position where you know that you can score.
Q. Is it possible to see a team begin to respect you during a course of a game, and did you see anything? You kind of touched on it there with Rashad Anderson; did you see anything or hear anything that indicated that finally they did?
TONY SKIN: Honestly I think for the whole game they probably thought sooner or later they were going to beat us because they were supposed to beat us. I think deep down inside they knew they were a great team. They didn't really give up. They fought hard. But, you know, we just went out there and played harder than they did and we just got the win.
Q. Did you talk to Rudy after the game, and secondly, what does it mean to know that you played against Rudy, he's had the big name for all of these years and he goes to UCONN, expected to win a championship, and you're going to the Final Four instead?
WILL THOMAS: Well, after the game, I shook hands with all their players. I shook hands with him, too. And just by him going to UCONN, I'm happy for him. I wanted to see him succeed, too. He's a good player. So I just have all the respect for him.
Q. Jai, do you have any thoughts?
JAI LEWIS: I had the opportunity to speak to him after the game. I didn't play against Rudy, I just know him through mutual friends. He's a great player. He went to UCONN, highly recruited. He went to UCONN. He's supposed to win the National Championship. But I guess his trip stopped short tonight.
Q. UCONN, great rebounding team, great shot-blocking team, can you talk about the work that Jai and Will did inside against that front line?
JIM LARRANAGA: What was the rebounding totals?
JIM LARRANAGA: We won that? Nice job, guys. (Laughter).
You know, going into the Michigan State game, having them beat us like a drum on the boards last year, it was such a strong emphasis in practice, we do a drill called musical chairs where the offense is on the outside and the defense is on the inside. The defense has to move and find somebody to block out and you're not just blocking out your own man, you've got to find somebody. We've been doing that all season long and getting better and better in that category of the game.
But on Friday, Wichita State just took it to us on the boards. So we made a very strong emphasis to the team yesterday at our game preparation practice, and again in the pregame talk in the locker room. Coach Johnson, my assistant who in charge of the defense, said, "Listen we must win the battle on the boards. We cannot give them second and third efforts to score. They are just too good for that." And Will and Jai are two of the best rebounders in the Colonial Athletic Association, but the whole key is having a team effort of getting Lamar and Tony and Folarin to get in there, Gabe Norwood to get in there. And when I say that those guys as a team are very, very good rebounding in the CAA, now everybody knows that means they are very, very strong in the nation, because the league is so good. You've got Old Dominion up in New York in Madison Square Garden playing in the semifinals of the NIT and that kind of preparation CAA regular season definitely prepared us for this.
Q. The victory disappears before your eyes at the end of regulation on that layup. During the huddle after that happens, do you look in their eyes and see what the feeling is? Is there anything -- what do you say to them at that point to make sure they recover?
JIM LARRANAGA: I told them, "There's no place on earth I'd rather be than here with you guys in the Verizon Center playing Connecticut. Now we have to beat them in a five-minute game. You didn't play defense for five seconds, you've got to go overtime. Now we've got to boot them in a five-minute game." And that's what we did.
Q. You talked earlier, I think last week about your boys that are a big part of your program, can you tell us if -- I know you have one son who plays overseas, was he here or did you get any communication from him and if so, what was that?
JIM LARRANAGA: Yeah, his communication was, "I can't be there, I can't be there Sunday, but you need to win so I can come next week for the Final Four." He's in Italy, he spent the whole night or today on the phone with his brother, John, who lives here in Washington, D.C. They just talked the whole time. They both e-mail me every day with scouting reports, statistics and information for the staff to consider in our game preparation.
They grew up in a basketball family. We live for the games like this. They were both great college players, Jay at Bowling Green and John at George Mason. They know how much this means to me. They show their love in so many different ways and being on the phone together just talks about the relationship they have. I don't know if Jay was barking at John during the game this time. Last week he was telling him to go down to the bench and tell me to quit running the high screen-and-roll.
Q. Did he give you any specific UCONN tips for this game?
Q. Can you share those?
JIM LARRANAGA: The way Jay does it, two different approaches to it. Jay, first thing he said was, "Marcus Williams is the key to the game. He is their quarterback, he is the head. If you cut off the head, the body will die."
I asked him if he had any suggestions of how he could do that.
He said, "No, you're the coach, you figure it out." (Laughter).
Then he said something that we all know is that UCONN has tremendous advantage on the boards. They are so big and so athletic, that we cannot allow the game to become a high-possession game where there's lots of shots, lots of misses, because no matter how hard we try, eventually their athletic ability would limit our chances of rebounding and give them the advantage. And so we did have to control tempo with our offense, and we did that, maybe not as much as I thought we might, but we did it enough that we were in the game.
The last thing he said was much different than the Wichita State game, Connecticut will not pack it in around your big guys. Tell your guards that they are going to get more pressure than they saw before, and that they need to get the ball inside to the big guys, because Connecticut's players are big enough to play behind, and they will sit behind Jai and Will expecting they can block their shots. That was very, very accurate and a major message to the players to play in-out-in, kick it out in, throw out it out, kick it in. If they don't on the second touch, the guys go to work, we did that much better in the second half when the offense was in front of our bench.
On the other side is my son, John, who is breaking down all of Connecticut's statistics, giving me ideas if we are behind at the end, who to foul. He's talking about the strengths of Connecticut versus our players and used the analogy of they don't really have a true weakness, but they are turnover-prone. And if you can get them -- if you can scramble enough to force turnovers. The problem with that is if they get by the pressure, it's a dunk, so you have to turn that on and off and do it sporadically. Don't give it to them as a full diet because they will torch us. And we did that, mostly in the first half, we threw the zone at them, we threw the scrambling at them, we played man-to-man, we tried to trap down in the post. Actually we didn't do a great job of that, we improved that area of our game the second half.
Q. Same question I asked the players about being Cinderella, Cinderella usually goes home in the Sweet 16, she doesn't get up from an early knockout punch against UCONN, a devastating tying at the end where a lot of teams could collapse. Can anything but an elite team accomplish what you all have accomplished so far?
JIM LARRANAGA: So what you're saying now is we're no longer Cinderella; we're an elite team?
Q. I'm asking you.
JIM LARRANAGA: Here is what we believe and what we talk about with our players constantly is it's not about who we play, it's not about where we play; it's about how we play. How do we execute our game plan, do we play with great effort and intensity, because without effort, nothing can be accomplished.
Secondly, we have to execute the game plan, and the game plan is simply this: Whenever, whatever we decide to do, everybody has to be on the same page. At halftime one of the strong emphasis to our guards was against Wichita State they collapsed, and you guys got a lot of 3s. In this game, the guards are being pressured, so throw the ball inside as often as you possibly can and let Jai and Will dictate whether the ball comes back out to you. If it does, look for your 3 then, but not first. And when you can get everybody on the same page, understanding what they are trying to do, and then they are willing to do that with great effort and total unselfishness when no one cares who scores the bucket and they are willing to do it with the defense and the rebounding where everybody has got to chip in, it's not one guy guarding the ball but five guys. One guy is assigned, the guy who has it, and four guys are there to help support his effort. If you can do that, there's nobody in the country we can't compete with.
And if we play a great game, but we lose, so be it. If our best is not good enough, but we don't want to concede anything to anyone, we don't want to -- we don't want to judge ourselves based on other people's expectations. We want to have our own expectations and our own goals and do our best to reach them.
Q. You played your starters the last ten and a half minutes all the way through overtime, were you looking for signs of fatigue, were you concerned they would be able to get all the way against that pressure defense?
JIM LARRANAGA: We were concerned about that and we utilized our bench quite a bit. But the TV time-outs are about a week and a half long and that allows them enough time. They don't rest like that in a regular game. It gives them a lot of time to regroup. I used one time-out just to rest them, it was kind of late in the regulation and it was effective.
But in games like this, like when Folarin Campbell got trapped, he needs time-outs. You need that at the last 30 seconds, five seconds, whatever, to relieve the pressure, and we did that.
But I would not have hesitated to put any of the guys in off the bench because they have been playing great, too. But that group on the floor had the right combination of two go-to guys on the inside 3, three-point shooters on the outside, to make Connecticut have to play all five positions. And if you look at the stat sheets, all of those guys had double figures.
Dan, you know it's your article that helped me.
Q. Which one?
JIM LARRANAGA: The one this morning.
Q. This is probably a little bit of an unfair question I guess an hour after the game but I'm wondering if you've thought at all how this month and going to the Final Four will change George Mason's basketball program?
JIM LARRANAGA: The first thing I said to my assistants was, "Do you think we can get our money back on those hotels we've got?" We've got to rent rooms like months in advance to get there.
To us, we are a small group, a basketball team that represents a group much larger than us. We work and represent George Mason University, a great institution. I've talked about it plenty throughout this last two weeks. People probably don't understand, even though our players, I don't think they really understand that we touch so many more people than just the people who are around us or even the people who are at the games.
I've gotten e-mails from people who are sick. I got one e-mail from a gentleman who was in a car accident not long ago who is having very difficult times just walking right now. And he said in watching us play and how hard we play and how we overcame the odds against Michigan State and North Carolina, that he felt that he could overcome anything that he was going to face and that he was going to work to try to be like the George Mason Patriots. When I read that, I thought our guys need to understand this; that there's so many people who watch college basketball who identify with the athletes and kind of envision themselves if, boy, if I were ever given that chance, I'd love to be like those guys. And for people to ask them for their autographs like they are rock stars or something. And I just want our players to understand, basically we're all the same. It doesn't matter who you are, whether you're the star of the team, the last guy on the team, whether you're extremely wealthy or extremely poor economically, you know, money doesn't buy happiness, you choose to be happy. You choose to be like Folarin Campbell and Lamar Butler. Those guys have never had a bad day in their life.
This group now knows just from the love they have gotten from the George Mason community, from the Fairfax community, from the whole metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., it's just been awesome.
So we know it and we're enjoying it and we'll take on that responsibility for at least one more week. Maybe eight days.
Q. I could be wrong, if I'm not mistaken, you had a front row seat to Chaminade and Virginia and if you could put this in context of college basketball from the 11th seed of the CAA going to the Final Four.
JIM LARRANAGA: You're absolutely right. I had a front show seat. Chaminade basically what we are doing right now, they beat a great basketball team in the University of Virginia gentleman, super great players and guys like Ralph Samspson, Rick Carlisle, that was a great team.
I think maybe the difference is we never saw ourselves as a No. 1 seed or a number 11 seed or 16th seed. That number was truly irrelevant to us. It was irrelevant to me and I tried to get across to our guys, it's totally irrelevant. The seed is just a number where you're placed as to who you will place in the first round.
Once you get on the court, no one really cares where you're seeded, and it's about performance and execution. It's about keeping things simple and not trying to do things beyond our own capabilities.
Facing Michigan State, we had some history there that helped us. We had played them a year ago, we had the tape, we could show it to our guys, we could explain to them the things that they did that were effective, the strengths of that team and the matchups how it worked in their favor last year and how we could turn that around if we had great preparation.
Once the game began, and they were able to do some of the things they planned on doing, they ran by us if you remember, but to start the game, we were also in high gear and scored it, went back and forth. It was not until our defense settled in and we were able to stop them enough times to feel like, wow, we are in control.
One of the thoughts of the day is from William Jennings Bryant who wrote "destiny is not a matter of chance; it's a matter of choice." It's not something that is given to you. It's something you earn. That's something we strongly emphasize to our players; that for us, we need to earn respect. No one is going to give it to us.
Q. You talked a little yesterday about the recipe for an upset: Find one thing, key in on it and exploit it. What was that? I guess it worked out well, but when did you see that working?
JIM LARRANAGA: I would not say it was finding a weakness. It was finding a focal point. And the focal point is always based on how the opponent treats you.
Friday, Wichita State just dropped those guys inside. Made it very difficult on Jai and Will. But this team is smart enough to recognize that and to capitalize on the 3-point shooting opportunities we were given. We won that game because of that.
Tonight, the guys especially in the second half recognized that Connecticut was playing behind them in the post and to throw the ball inside regularly. That does a number of things. No. 1, we had to work the ball around before we could actually get it in there, because it wasn't like they just stood directly behind us. They were trying to keep it out a little bit, but we knew if we were patient enough, we could get it in.
Once we got it in, now the defense has to make a decision. Do they let us go one-on-one in the post or do they drop help inside? Once Jai had it one-on-one and Will had it one-on-one, they were able to score effectively. And then Lamar was able to hit 3s and it's pick your poison, do you stay on the perimeter and let Jai and will score or do you drop inside and let Folarin and Tony and Lamar get 3-pointers. All of them were ready to step up and make big plays at the offensive ends.
At the other end, it was key to make them not do things they did in the first half which was throw the ball into the air, to block inside the paint. If they get it there they are scoring, don't foul them, don't put them on the foul line, we don't want anybody in foul trouble sitting on the sideline. They did that well enough to have a nine-point lead at the half. But we took away a lot of those in the second half, not all, but enough.
Q. From Friday until six seconds left in today's game, UCONN virtually made every score they had to make, put the ball in the basket, every moment that they had to make it. Jai misses the two free throws. Take us into your head for the last six seconds until the ball comes off the rim.
JIM LARRANAGA: I kept telling the official, "I want a time-out when he makes the free throw." I thought he was going to make them. Same with Tony, we had the time-out to call, once he made the free throw. Tony is an unbelievable clutch shooter and Jai is big-time.
One of the things that we had talked about in the last time-out was when we're on the foul line, we must set the defense -- everybody must be matched up and ready to play, because the last possession of regulation, we were back, but we were not ready. We let them get the ball to the basket way too easy. When Jai missed those, I knew he was mad, I just hoped his man wasn't going to get him because he probably would have fouled the heck out of him.
What happened was the first mistake in regulation, Folarin was back this time and ready to defend and the guy pulled up and took a tough shot. Was that a 3? It was a 3? Boy, I'm glad he didn't make that (laughter).
Q. You left Bowling Green because it got to a point where you realized you were not going to be able to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish as a coach. One could argue that George Mason was hardly the place to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish as a coach, especially given where the program was when you took over. At what point in your time at Mason did you really think you could do what you've done? Was it only in these last couple of weeks?
JIM LARRANAGA: Actually, I think it was when George Evans told me he was going to come (laughter).
For those of you who don't know who George Evans is, he was a young man who went to the military at 17 years old and ended up signing with us when he was 25. Truly one of the great inspirational leaders I've ever been around, the most highly-disciplined person I've ever been around.
George, I've referred to him as the George Washington of George Mason University; meaning, he was the founding father. He was the true leader of the program, and everything we've done since then is a reflection of his communication to his teammates that what Coach L. says, that's what we are going to do. He's the boss, he's the drill sergeant and we are the soldiers. I said, "No, George, I'm the general." No, I'm only kidding.
But George was very much in line with following instructions. I guess it was his military background. So all during those four years, we had very good teams. Even that first year, even though we did not have a winning season, we could see the foundation being built and quite honestly, his senior year, very similar to this team. Just one point short. If we had beaten Maryland, there's no telling what that team would have done.
Jai Lewis is very much like George, but just in a different way. He's much more of a quiet leader. He has a mind of his own, a personality of his own, he's not one to just follow instructions. He always has a question as, well, why? Why do we have to do it that way?
And it wasn't until we added Will Thomas to the combination of Jai Lewis and Will Thomas did we have enough inside strength to compete with the top teams in the country. I've always felt our guards were good enough shooters and ball-handlers to match up against most teams, not all; there are some teams that are just great, they have tremendous backcourts and size and athletic ability, but I thought we had enough talent in the backcourt that if we could get one more guy to go along with Jai while he was in a George Mason uniform, we'd have a shot.
And we've been good. But last year, we were a little bit young. We could see the development of the team, but there was just two areas that we just were not committed enough to, and that was defense and rebounding. And after the season was over when we sat and talked as a staff and as a team and talked about what it would take to win a championship, the guys bought in. They really did. They were totally committed to getting in the weight room and getting stronger, to focus on the defense and become better defensively, and to just, quite frankly, go after more rebounds with a vengeance. So during this year, I said it before, people didn't believe me, we only lost once in January to a very good Wilmington team at Wilmington. We had the ball down one with under a minute to go, and then we lost once in February to a great Hofstra team, and that day, probably down four or five, but Jai was hurt, he wasn't himself. He had a sprained ankle. We just did not have enough that night.
So does that answer the question? I don't even know what it was now. Thank you very much, everybody. See you at Indianapolis.

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