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Longshots George Mason Look to Continue Basketball Dream

They have beaten three former national champions on their way to U.S. college basketball's "Final Four." Fairfax Virginia's George Mason University Patriots are not ready for the magic to end. The school is hoping that the teamwork that brought it this far will take it to the national title.

George Mason University is what is known as a "commuter school" - with many of its students coming from or living in the local area. But it actually has more students than its former parent - the University of Virginia.

Located about 34 kilometers outside of Washington, George Mason started in 1957 as a branch of the University of Virginia. The school became independent in 1972 and was renamed George Mason University for the Virginia planter who was a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

GMU has nearly 30,000 students, more than 80 percent of whom live in the local area. The GMU Patriots play in what is known as the Colonial Athletic Association, which features schools such as Old Dominion and Hofstra. But this month, they have shocked the nation - and their opponents - by beating Michigan State, reigning champion North Carolina and Connecticut.

Just a few days before Mason plays the University of Florida in the NCAA tournament, a line snakes out of the student union into the bookstore to purchase "Final Four" T-Shirts. Carri Vitello is one of the managers of the store and she says the line for Mason Final Four T-Shirts has not stopped since the Patriots beat Connecticut Sunday.

"It is hard to tell," said Vitello. "At this point we are well over 12,000 [sold]. And we just got in another 3,000 or so, and we are looking at another 5,000 or so this afternoon. Students, parents, alumni, members of the community, faculty, staff, you name it they are buying it. "

Some of the students in line include, Freddie Telhami a freshman from Springfield, Virginia, with a close-cropped haircut, a large chain and an earring and David Mposa, a Springfield, Virginia native of African descent. Both are predicting a win for George Mason, but they differ on the score.

Mposa: "Ahhhhhh. 70-65 Mason."

Telhami: "I'm going to say, mmm. I'm going to say 83-76. It's going to be high scoring."

Also in line are Jasmine Yusef, a junior studying psychology and Nita Kahn. Both are slightly-built young women wearing Muslim hejab head coverings. The two girls had been in line for about two hours to get a "Mason Final Four" t-shirt. Jasmine says the team's success has helped the school's image.

"It's really exciting to be in the Final Four," she said. "Mason doesn't really get a a lot of coverage so it is exciting, yeah."

At the final rally before the team leaves for Indianapolis to play Florida, junior cheerleader Laura Lazarus told VOA Sports this is the most excited she has seen the school in her three years there.

"It has been amazing, it is like a dream come true," she said. "This is my third year at Mason and we have not had anything this exciting since I have been here. It has just been absolutely incredible seeing the entire student body as excited about Mason as we are. So it's been incredible."

Shortly after the interview, she is on stage to cheer Patriots' coach Jim Larranaga, who sets off a raucous celebration when he takes the microphone. Larranaga, a 56-year-old former assistant coach at Virginia has led the Patriots for nine years. He told the packed student union that his anniversary comes on the day Mason plays Florida.

"I arrived here April 1st, 1997," said Larranaga. "And on my ninth anniversary we will be playing the University of Florida, with the winner advancing to the national championship on Monday night. I have been trying to think long and hard as to what I could possible ask for as an anniversary present. You guys have any ideas?"

George Mason started the tournament as a 500-1 underdog. Not great odds, but the Patriots have surprised both observers and opponents with a team-oriented game that is strong on defense. Larranaga says that he is hoping that the Florida Gators get the same surprise that Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut got.

"The night we played - actually it was the afternoon we played the University of North Carolina, in the locker room my last message to our players was this," he said. "I said to our guys, North Carolina fans think their players are supermen. But our fans know we are Kryptonite [which weakens Superman]."

If George Mason beats Florida, the Patriots would face the winner of the other semifinal between Louisiana State and UCLA. The Fairfax school also stands to profit financially from its success. According to a company that measures sports sponsorships, the school has earned an extra $4 million from its success so far. Should George Mason win the national title, that number could almost triple.