- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — George Mason captured the nation’s imagination with its unfathomable run to the Final Four. The Patriots, anonymous to many before Selection Sunday, reached college basketball’s most hallowed event and proved that a mid-major program could not only compete but beat big-time schools.

However, the Fairfax fantasy ended on a horrific shooting night on the game’s grandest stage.

Florida’s flurry of 3-pointers put an end to George Mason’s run 73-58 at a packed RCA Dome last night in the national semifinals. Lee Humphrey’s long-ball barrage in the second half was too much for the Patriots to overcome.

Meanwhile, George Mason’s hot shooting throughout the tournament disappeared.

“I kind of expected this game to be decided in the last minute of play like all the others before,” said Patriots coach Jim Larranaga, whose team finished with a 27-8 record. “It was kind of a shock to my system.”

Florida outscored George Mason 36-6 on 3-pointers. The Gators (32-6) made 12 of 25 (48 percent) 3-pointers, led by Humphrey (19 points), who made six of 12. The Patriots, who had made 41.9 percent of their 3-pointers in four tournament wins, did not make a 3-pointer in the first 36 minutes of the game and wound up 2-for-11 (18.2 percent) while totaling a season-low six assists.

The Gators also dominated the boards 40-27, including 16 offensive rebounds. Florida will meet UCLA, which beat LSU 59-45, tomorrow night, as it attempts to win its first national title.

“For some reason, we were never able to really establish our rhythm either offensively or defensively,” said Larranaga, who believed the team’s first game in a dome could have contributed to the poor shooting. “And Florida’s ability to get so many second shots I thought really hurt us. It took away opportunities. Those missed shots are normally fastbreaks for us. We had been beating people on the boards throughout the tournament.”

Florida turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout. Humphrey, a 6-foot-2 junior, made three consecutive 3s as the Gators opened the second half on a 16-4 run to build a 47-30 lead. George Mason scored on only one of its first seven possessions after halftime.

“The big focus for us was the 3-point line,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who noted George Mason made nine of 18 3-pointers in its upset of Connecticut in the Washington, D.C., Region final. “We really talked a lot about the 3-point line and trying to mix up double teams on [Jai] Lewis and [Will] Thomas and just keep them off balance.”

The strategy proved to work, especially after George Mason missed a number of open 3-pointers and layups early. And the Gators were able to get second shots, many times off missed 3s as long rebounds went over the heads of Lewis and Thomas.

Corey Brewer had 19 points and was 3-for-6 on 3-pointers for the Gators, while 6-foot-11 teammate Joakim Noah was held to 12 points, but had eight rebounds and four blocks, and affected many more. Taurean Green (15 points) also had three 3-pointers for the Gators, while Al Horford had 13 rebounds and four assists as Florida’s frontcourt did an excellent job drawing the defense inside and kicking out passes to open perimeter shooters.

Lewis had 13 points and 11 rebounds in his final game at George Mason. Tony Skinn also had 13 points, but was just 1-for-4 on 3-pointers. Butler, the Most Outstanding Player in last week’s regional who averaged 16.0 points in the Patriots’ other four tournament games, finished with eight points.

“They were flying at us, but we weren’t converting shots we usually make,” the senior said. “I missed a layup early, Tony missed one, [Folarin Campbell] missed one, Jai missed a couple. It just wasn’t our night tonight. It wasn’t meant to be. Florida played an excellent game but most of it was due to us. We didn’t play Mason basketball at all. To do it on this stage is disappointing.”

The Gators eventually took a 49-32 lead on Noah’s two free throws. The Patriots used a 7-1 run to cut the deficit to 61-50 with 6:03 left on Skinn’s only 3-pointer. After Humphrey deposited another 3-pointer, George Mason scored five straight points. Thomas’ jump hook was followed by Campbell’s 3-pointer to trim the Gators lead to 64-55 with 4:44 left.

But the Patriots couldn’t get any closer. Green hit a pair of free throws to push the lead back to 11, Campbell missed a contested layup, and Brewer made two free throws to make it 68-55 with 3:55 left.

George Mason left the court wondering what could have been if it had played a little better. And even with stark disappointment on their faces, the Patriots began to savor their push to the Final Four.

“We changed the face of college basketball,” said Butler, whose team became only the second 11th seed and first team from the Colonial Athletic Association to reach a Final Four. “It was an amazing run. Ultimately it had to come to an end.”


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