Moral compass guides Patriots

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – One look in Tony Skinn’s heartsick eyes, and George Mason coach Jim Larranaga knew his star guard had done something terribly wrong.

One look at the replay of Skinn punching an opponent in the groin during the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, and Larranaga knew he had no choice but to suspend the senior – no matter the consequences.

“I’m not going to judge based on the circumstances. I’m not going to be influenced by what the cause and effect might be,” Larranaga said Friday. “If I did that, I’d be changing my philosophy every single day. We can’t live that way. We have to have a certain amount of core values that we live by.”

That kind of moral compass can stand out in big-time athletics. But it’s one thing to make grand pronouncements and quite another to have the courage of convictions when the stakes are highest. Sometimes, though, doing the right thing really does get rewarded.

As everyone knows by now, George Mason has made an improbable run to the Final Four, where it plays third-seeded Florida today. And Skinn and his teammates have a lesson to guide them long after their basketball careers are over.

“This is about teaching kids,” said Tom O’Connor, George Mason’s athletic director. “The potential game coming up was not the ultimate. The ultimate was the student-athlete.”

As George Mason’s second-leading scorer and one of three senior starters, Skinn is a leader on and off the court. He might not be a quote machine like Lamar Butler or as imposing as Jai Lewis, but he can be counted on to do the right thing.

Which made Skinn’s cheap shot that much more shocking.

“I let my emotions get the best of me,” Skinn said. “If I could take it back, I would.”

With 55 seconds left in the semifinals of the conference tournament on March 5, Skinn was guarding Hofstra’s Loren Stokes.

As a pass was made on the other side of the court, Skinn punched Stokes between the legs. “I didn’t see it myself,” said Larranaga, who benched Skinn anyway. “But in just talking to him, I know Tony and I knew he had done something that he was ashamed of. I could see it in his face.”

After the game, Larranaga and O’Connor watched the replay together.

“We both agreed that this was something that doesn’t represent George Mason University or our basketball program,” Larranaga said. “That we needed to take immediate steps to send that message not only to Tony, but to the rest of our team and to the rest of the athletes who represent George Mason.”

The following day, Larranaga announced he was suspending Skinn for the next game, wherever it might be.

“He had to do what he had to do,” said Skinn, who also apologized to Stokes. “If I did something wrong at home, my mother had to punish me and I’m not going to argue with her. It’s one of those disciplinary things.”

Except there was so much at skate.

“I explained to the team, “I’m not punishing Tony; we’re disciplining him. Trying to teach him something he probably already knows,”‘ Larranaga said. “Whether we get into a postseason tournament or no, that’s not what we stand for. That’s not who he is. That was the point.”

George Mason (27-7) still drew an at-large bid, along with a firestorm of criticism. Many questioned how the Patriots could be picked over a team from one of the big conferences, like Cincinnati, Maryland or Florida State, or Hofstra, if the NCAA was set on a small school.

When the Patriots were paired with Michigan State in the first round, most assumed their stay would be short. Especially without Skinn.

“It wasn’t like in the back of my head I thought we were going to lose. I thought we had a great chance to win the game,” Skinn said. “We just had to go out there and play great, and that’s what we did.”

With Skinn on the bench in a suit – “I must have sweated off 10 pounds” – George Mason shocked the Spartans to win their first NCAA tournament game ever. Skinn returned for the second-round game, coming off the bench and contributing eight points, two rebounds and two assists in the upset of North Carolina.

“He’s been great. Against Michigan State, he was cheering us on because he didn’t want to end the season with what happened,” Folarin Campbell said. “He came back against North Carolina and played a great game.”

He’s averaged double figures in George Mason’s last two NCAA games.

Though his miss of the front end of a one-and-one allowed Connecticut to force overtime in the regional final, he and the Patriots held on to reach the Final Four.

And they did it without sacrificing their integrity.

“What we stand for is far greater than whether we win or lose on a basketball floor,” Larranaga said. “We are all educators.

“Our responsibility is to teach these youngsters, whether they’re basketball players or any other student-athlete we’re working with, to set the right example.”

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