- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Jai Lewis and Will Thomas doggedly maneuvered around the likes of Paul Davis, Tyler Hansbrough, Paul Miller, Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong on the way to the Final Four.

It wasn’t quite so easy for Mason’s savvy big men last night against Florida, in part because of the Gators’ athleticism but also because of the Patriots’ struggles from the perimeter.

Both Lewis and Thomas struggled even to convert layups while avoiding Joakim Noah and Al Horford as the 11th-seeded Patriots’ stunning run ended with a 73-58 semifinal loss to the third-seeded Gators at RCA Dome.

Both Lewis (13 points) and Thomas (10 points) reached double figures in points, but shot a combined 9-for-25 as the Patriots (27-8) failed to become the first No. 11 seed to reach the national title game.

Even more enlightening was the 40-27 rebounding edge possessed by the Gators (32-6), who grabbed 16 offensive rebounds to the Patriots’ 16 defensive rebounds.

“Florida’s ability to get so many second shots really hurt us,” Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. “It took away opportunities. Those missed shots are normally fastbreaks for us.”

Noah’s shot-blocking ability by itself was enough to fluster Mason’s big men. The energetic 6-foot-11 sophomore blocked four shots, but his mere presence forced the Patriots to alter their approach to attacking the basket.

Mason — and not just Lewis and Thomas — seemed tentative at times while advancing to the basket, as if knowing Noah and Horford were lurking nearby. The Patriots flubbed nine layups, and missed another half-dozen shots in the low post.

“This game, the big men, the way they double-teamed was very effective,” Thomas said. “When we went up with our shots, they came with a double team to block it and it really affected our shots.”

The Gators mixed their double-team approach early on as well, initially converging on a big man when he caught the ball before later backing off and waiting for Lewis or Thomas to shoot.

No longer was Lewis able to flatten a defender as he backed into the basket like he had for much of the tournament, and Thomas began looking for different ways to shoot after some early trouble.

The pair scored only six points in the first 25 minutes, and Thomas didn’t even make a basket until 14:32 was left.

While Lewis and Thomas struggled to bury shots, they were both effective at jamming the Gators inside. The burly Lewis grabbed 11 rebounds to limit Florida’s ability to score in the post.

Mason held a 32-18 scoring edge in the paint, and held Noah to 12 points, his lowest total of the tournament. Horford’s six-point outing matched a season-low.

“Offensively, our big guys, we didn’t have great numbers,” Noah said. “Rebounding, we did a good job. In terms of scoring, I think they did a great job [limiting] our scoring.”

Indeed, it was in that aspect of the game that Mason struggled mightily, a surprise since the Patriots had outrebounded both Michigan State and Connecticut during their tournament run.

Florida benefited from its reliance on the 3-pointer, a shot that often creates long rebounds. As some missed shots caromed away, they eluded Mason’s big men and bounded into the hands of the Gators guards.

That scenario unfolded when Horford grabbed a rebound off Corey Brewer’s 3-pointer late in the first half and kicked it out to Taurean Green, who drilled a 3 that bumped Florida’s lead to 28-24. Mason never again had the ball while trailing by just a possession.

“We didn’t get a body on people like we should have,” Lewis said. “It wasn’t really that their big men were getting all the boards. A lot of rebounds went long, so it was going over me and Willie’s heads and we were boxing out again.”

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