RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Long before the bus pulled into the school lot and the Colonial Athletic Association trophy was put away, the comparisons between this year's George Mason and the 2006 version were already being made.
``George Mason is this year's George Mason,'' one sign read. ``George, I've missed you. Let's go dancing again'', read another. It was signed ``Cinderella.''
Two years ago, the Patriots turned a second chance into the chance of a lifetime, using an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament as the impetus for a magical three weeks, a stunning run that took them all the way to the national semifinals.
Mary 68-59 in Monday night's championship.
Two years ago, coach Jim Larranaga's team captivated underdog lovers everywhere by beating the likes of Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut. He still marvels at what that run meant.
``The most incredible thing about getting to the Final Four is that everybody still talks about it two years later,'' Larranaga said Monday night at Richmond Coliseum.
``When we played in the BracketBuster at Ohio University, it was written in the school newspaper that it was the biggest regular-season game in school history because a Final Four team was coming and it was being nationally televised.''
``They had an unbelievable crowd and cheered like crazy, like it was the biggest game in school history,'' he added. ``So we've created a lot of excitement.''
For the record, the Patriots lost that game 69-57, but they've done little wrong since, winning four of five and limiting opponents to 55 points a game.
And now, fair or not, many will expect the Patriots to repeat history.
Folarin Campbell, a sophomore when he led George Mason is scoring in the tournament two years ago, said the key for this team is not trying to duplicate that magic.
``Two years ago we had a totally different team,'' he said. ``We've just got to go out there and make our own identity for this year. Two years ago is in the past.''
But it's a past that won't go away, especially not this week, and especially not on the largely commuter campus in Fairfax, a bustling Washington suburb.
Fans, Campbell said, have earned the right to approach it however they like, and the signs they displayed at Richmond Coliseum showed just how they felt.
``If they want to say we're going to win the national championship, let them say that,'' he said. ``But we know that we have to take care of business in our first game. Whoever we play, we've got to go out, match their intensity and play good defense.''
Mary shot just 39 percent, and second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington managed 41 points against stiff perimeter pressure in the semifinals, one game after scoring 82.
Larranaga credited a phone call from sports psychologist Bob Rotella and the words of a television commentator.
Rotella, he said, watched George Mason play Northeastern on March 1, then called and told him: ``You didn't play defense. You didn't rebound. You didn't do any of the things that your teams in the past have done when you've been successful.''
The commentator, too, spoke early in the broadcast about how the Patriots were allowing the ball to get inside too easily and not meeting the defensive challenge.
``I fully expect that our players took all of that to heart,'' Larranaga said.
And now they will take it back to the tournament. They are led by Campbell, the guard with NBA range who scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half against the Tribe, and powerful Will Thomas, an athletic inside presence at both ends of the floor.
``They are the face of George Mason basketball,'' Larranaga said, referring to the seniors. ``Everybody recognizes and knows that Folarin Campbell is like our Magic Johnson. He's got that unbelievable smile and great, great ability to rise to the occasion.
``And Will is like our Bill Russell. He just knows how to win. He does all the things it takes to win basketball games whether it's defend, rebound, score.''
Beginning next week, they introduce themselves to the nation.

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