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In honor of every underdog team looking to knock off a top seed in this year’s NCAA tournament, we tracked down players who came from obscurity to pull off a stunning upset—and then, usually, returned to obscurity. Here we speak with Tony Skinn, guard for the 2005-2006 George Mason Patriots team that made a surprise run to the Final Four.
A relative nobody playing in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and coming off a pedestrian 16-13 season, George Mason wasn't even picked to finish at the top of their division for the upcoming ’05-’06 season.
But the Patriots and their coach, Jim Larranaga, posted a 23-7 record during the regular season, including a torrid stretch of 19 wins in 23 games. Although they did not win their conference tournament, they were awarded an 11 seed. What followed was one of the most memorable runs in tournament history.
George Mason toppled Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and a UConn squad featuring current NBA star Rudy Gay. Suddenly the Patriots were in the Final Four—only the second double-digit seed in history to reach that level.
The team’s miracle run came to an end in the Final Four, where they fell to the eventual tournament champion University of Florida. But before his team went home, George Mason’s quick, short point guard, Tony Skinn, had established himself as a March Madness hero, dropping 14 points against Wichita State, 10 against UConn, and 13 in the loss against the Gators.
His team’s success propelled him into a professional career overseas and a spot on the Nigerian national team, which competed in the 2012 Olympics.
Today Skinn is busy rehabbing an injury he sustained during the Games in London. What follows is the Nigerian native’s memories of that famous tournament run, including his agonizing missed free throw, which sent the UConn game into overtime; his time playing overseas; and his dream of becoming a basketball coach.
“We were just trying to win basketball games. One game after the other, whether it was North Carolina, whether it was Wichita State, whether it UConn, we knew we were going to have to go out there and play hard. Those guys probably had more pressure on them than we did."
“At George Mason, we were very team-oriented. We didn’t have any individuals. If you look at the stats, me and Jai [Lewis] both averaged 13, but our other three starters all averaged double figures as well."
“At the end of the day, no disrespect to any one of those [other teams], but we were good enough to play and compete with them, and that’s the way I looked at it. I think my team took that same spirit and that’s why we were able to continue to win games in the tournament."
“Against UConn, I’m the best free throw shooter on the team. I go up to the line, assuming I am going to knock the two free throws down and end the game. Instead, it was a one-in-one, the ball is literally in the hoop and rolls out, as fate would have it."
“They come down, and I think Denham Brown makes a layup to take the game to overtime. I remember going back to the bench; the only thing I could think about was if we lost in overtime, this would all come back to me. Hats off to my teammates because they saved me from that happening."
“I’m blessed to have the opportunity [to play overseas]. I spent three years in France, a year in Italy, a year in Germany and then last season I was in Israel. A big part of that came from our run in 2006 in the Final Four. You see different things and meet different people and expand your knowledge of what life is about."
“Coming from D.C., it’s hard to picture that. A lot of people never get to leave their home town, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get out around the world, 10 or 15 plus countries, and be able to see that because of basketball."
“They don’t glorify the one-on-one [overseas]. It’s more about winning. I could have 25 points for two straight games, but if we lost those games, I’d be sent home."
“A lot of guys go over there and they think that it’s about showing off and averaging 20 points, and sometimes that’s the case. But they just care about winning and playing team basketball. That was the biggest difference for me, because I’m a playmaker and I like to have the ball in my hands. You have to use your brain in Europe; you can’t just use your physical abilities."
“Hopefully I’ll be able to get back on the court. I’m just rehabbing right now. Coaching is definitely in my future. It’s just a matter of time when I decide to put the ball down. I have a lot to give back to younger players out there like myself, who weren’t given an opportunity coming out of high school. I have a passion for that. I just turned 30, so I still have four or five more years hopefully that I can play, and then going into coaching after that.”
Check out STACK's previous two entries in the (Mid-Major) Legends of the NCAA Tournament: