- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — The alarm went off and George Mason University finally awoke to reality. The Patriots finally played down to the underdog label stuck upon them in every round of the NCAA tournament and proved correct the so-called “experts” who said there was no way they could win yet another game.

But it was some dream, wasn’t it?

One of the more remarkable stories of this or any other college basketball season ended last night when the University of Florida — and one deadeye shooter in particular — beat George Mason 73-58 in the first of two national semifinal games at the RCA Dome. UCLA defeated LSU 59-45 in the second game to set up tomorrow night’s final between the Gators and Bruins.

After almost failing to get an NCAA tournament invitation, the Patriots’ three-week journey and streak of upsets captured hearts, captivated minds and brought the Fairfax university out of the athletic shadows cast by its local rivals. It even provided a heretofore overlooked Founding Father, the school’s namesake, his 15 minutes of fame more than 200 years after his death.

“I think by what these players at George Mason have done, they’ve probably opened up the eyes of many people, including myself, that you don’t have to have 7-footers on your team or be the biggest and strongest team to have a great basketball team,” said coach Jim Larranaga, the architect of the Mason Miracle.

The winning coach, Billy Donovan of Florida, said of the Patriots: “What they did this year was great for college basketball.”

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who built a program that overshadowed George Mason and others, said, “They have every reason in the world to be happy and elated and proud, but they feel bad. Tomorrow or the next day, they’ll feel good. But as competitive as they are, no way can they immediately enjoy what they’ve done.”

Maybe not, but some of the players seemed to understand what they accomplished.

“This will go down in history,” senior forward Jai Lewis said.

“I think we’ve done something tremendous for college basketball, for the teams that are out there that watched us play,” said senior guard Tony Skinn. “Just to show them that all you need is an opportunity and a chance to go out there and play great basketball.”

Added senior guard Lamar Butler: “Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us. This is history. We changed the face of college basketball.”

A young team known as the “Baby Gators,” Florida was taller up front than the Patriots, which was supposed to provide an edge. It did to some extent, but the real hero for the winners was one of their smallest players, 6-foot-2 guard Lee Humphrey, who made three quick 3-point baskets after halftime to break open a close game.

Humphrey, who also made a free throw in that stretch, personally outscored the Patriots, 10-2, at that point to give Florida a 15-point lead. George Mason never recovered. Humphrey had 16 of his 19 points in the second half and made six of 12 3-pointers in the game.

“My teammates did a good job of finding me,” he said.

Florida made 12 of 25 3-point attempts in the game, but the Patriots came up empty from long range. That was the big difference. A hot-shooting team during the tournament, George Mason missed its first eight 3-point shots and finished two for 12 from beyond the arc.

Before the game, behind the north basket in the spacious arena that normally serves as the NFL home of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Burke looked more like one of those wacky football fans the cameras seem to love. He sported a yellow wig, green and yellow body paint and no shirt. And a cape.

A freshman at George Mason, Mr. Burke was part of the Patriot Platoon, the army of student supporters who followed their team long before it became anyone’s darling outside the immediate campus environs.

“I’ve been doing this since high school, painting myself,” said Mr. Burke, who is from Richmond, and was supposed to be running in a 20K race this weekend before more urgent matters took precedent. “I love school spirit, so I’m trying to promote it.”

Maryland, a big-name basketball school in the D.C. area, missed the tournament entirely. Georgetown and George Washington went down earlier in the tournament. But the Patriots of the Colonial Athletic Association kept going.

Mr. Burke was asked if he thought the Patriots’ incredible ride would be ended by a bigger and supposedly more talented Florida team.

“It will end when we win the national championship,” he proclaimed, a prediction that did not pan out. “But no matter what happens this weekend, whether we win or lose, the spirit will carry over for a long time.”

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