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The most wonderful time of the year

For the second time in the last five years, a No. 11-seeded CAA team from the state of Virginia is gearing up play for a berth in the NCAA basketball championship game. And with VCU fever sweeping the nation, I figure now is as good a time as any to recount my greatest sports memory.

In 2006, as a sophomore in high school, I attended what I would argue was the greatest college basketball game ever played - George Mason's 86-84 overtime win against UConn. My dad got me two tickets, both about 20 feet behind one of the baskets, to see the entire east regional schedule. But looking at the draw - UConn, George Mason, Wichita State and Washington - we were not particularly excited about our chances of seeing close matchups or upsets. Like most everyone else, we thought we were about to witness a cakewalk by UConn. The old man was so indifferent toward the slate that he decided to skip out on Sunday afternoon's game between Connecticut and George Mason and told me to invite a friend to come in his place.

And what a game to miss. George Mason, which was playing in front of essentially a home crowd, found itself down by nine at halftime. Despite the deficit, the Patriots came out and hit six three-pointers during the second half. The scrappy George Mason squad battled back against the more talented and more experienced Huskies to force overtime.

I still remember when UConn forward Denham Brown's reverse layup fell through at the end of regulation after rolling around the rim for what seemed like 10 seconds or longer. I remember singing "Livin' on a Prayer" - the official anthem of the Patriots despite the fact that it's a terrible song - when the underdog George Mason team finally prevailed in overtime. And to this day, whenever I even mention the words "George Mason" to the friend I brought with me to the game, I basically can get whatever I want out of him. It's that kind of magical moment like George Mason's improbable win that makes the NCAA Tournament the best sporting event of the year. Yes, the NBA Playoffs might feature better basketball, but only four to six teams win year after year. Want proof? Ever since the Seattle SuperSonics were crowned champions in 1979, only eight different teams have won the title - the Lakers, 76ers, Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Spurs, Rockets and Heat. And while I profess to love college football bowls, apparently I'm the only person who still watches them.

What makes the NCAA Tournament the best are those times when everybody throws out their brackets and starts rooting for the underdog. If you were watching the matchup between VCU and Kansas Sunday, you can't possibly tell me that you were rooting for Kansas. That's like rooting for Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies or - gulp! - the Yankees in a playoff series.

The love of the underdog is something that all people, even non-sports fans, can understand. After the VCU game Sunday, my grandmother called me, excitedly yelling into the phone. My grandmother, bless her heart, doesn't even know more than three college teams - I have to remind her frequently that I go to Virginia and not Virginia Tech, which distresses me to no end.

But there she was, cheering along with everyone else who has watched VCU's impressive run. If that's not a statement about how wonderful the NCAA Tournament is, I don't know what is.

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