WICHITA State is turning out to be the Cinderella story of this year’s US NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Not too long ago, Gabe Norwood and the George Mason Patriots were exactly in the same situation.
Passionately tracking down the 2013 tournament, the Rain or Shine star player can’t help but look back on the almost improbable feat he and the Patriots pulled off during the 2006 edition of `March Madness.’
Like the ninth-seeded Shockers team that advanced to Saturday’s national semifinals opposite Rick Pitino’s Louisville, the underdog Patriots also made heads turn seven years ago when they became the first mid-major team and just the second No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four, before finally going down against eventual champion Florida Gators of coach Billy Donovan.
Looking back, Norwood said the experience was "fun" while it lasted as he paid tribute to a "special group" of guys, who accomplished the best season ever in George Mason history by winning a school-record of 23 games in the regular season.
“That season was great,” said the Elasto Painters guard with a twinkle in his eyes during a chat with Spin.ph about what is considered among the Top 10 moments in US NCAA tournament history.
“The year before we didn’t lose any players, we had no seniors the year before so we brought back the same team. We have one freshman, so we’re very confident. It’s just too much fun, we have a very special group of guys.”
Jai Lewis, the former Rain or Shine import, was the team’s leading scorer with averages of 13.7 points and 7.8 rebounds, while the 28-year-old Norwood served as the Patriots’ valuable sixth man by averaging 21 minutes per game, hitting 3.4 points and grabbing 2.0 rebounds per contest.
“Going in, we were just trying to enjoy it. That’s something our coach (Jim Larranaga, now with Miami) preached to us, that all our hard work is to get into the tournament. After that, it’s fun.
“We had practices where we played softball (in practice). We were laid back, there’s no pressure on us. We knew we’re good, worst case scenario was if we lose, everybody thought we’re gonna lose anyway, so we just went out and have fun,” said Norwood.
The Patriots did have a lot of fun.
George Mason opened the tournament with a stunning upset of sixth seed and previous Final Four team Michigan State Spartans led by Shannon Brown, before eliminating Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough, and the defending champions North Carolina Tar Heels in the second round.
Both games were special as far as Norwood was concerned since he got to start for the team after second leading scorer Tony Skinn was suspended.
“So I stepped up and started the first two games of the tournament, and that’s something special,” he said.
Incidentally, the school slammed the door on fellow mid-major Wichita State in its next game to earn a ticket to the Elite Eight - and a match-up with top-seeded Connecticut Huskies led by a young sophomore by the name of Rudy Gay.
Norwood considered the game as his most memorable after the Patriots beat the Huskies in overtime in a game that went down, too, as one of the most memorable in tournament history.
“We beat UConn and got to the Final Four. It’s nothing like it,” said the 6-foot-5 Fil-Am who was a junior at the time.
But everything came to an end in the national semifinals in Indianapolis. The Gators, behind future NBA stars Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer, proved too much for the Patriots to contain and they lost by a mile, 73-58.
“I think personally, (the loss) was more heart-wrenching for our seniors who worked so hard. (Jai) Lewis, and the guys, they were great leaders and you see them walk off the floor for the last time with tears in their eyes and things like that,” said the former PBA Rookie of the Year and No. 1 draft pick (2008).
“That’s what hurt most. I hurt for them more than for myself.”
The Patriots failed to make it back to the tournament on Norwood’s senior year, losing in the Colonial Athletic Association final against Virginia Commonwealth University (Eric Maynor) after leading by as many as nine points in the last two minutes of a game Gabe said "kills me to this day."
This year, Norwood rooted for University of Miami to win it all since "my college coach and the coaching staff are all George Mason guys," and also silently cheered for La Salle where a friend of him played.
Unfortunately, both teams had been booted out.
Now, in the hands of Wichita State falls the daunting task of succeeding where George Mason failed seven years earlier.
“You can never guess them. Some people get lucky and things like that,” said Norwood. “It’s crazy. It’s college basketball, so you just got to love it.”