- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006


It had to end.

The George Mason University basketball team could not continue to beat the long odds.

It could not continue to beat the deep-pocketed schools with the blue-chip personnel.

It could not continue to overcome its considerable size disadvantage.

The Patriots already pieced the stuff of miracles in advancing to the Final Four. They already captured the interest of a misty-eyed nation that loves an underdog.

The Patriots showed up to the RCA Dome with their big hearts and big dreams last night.

They showed up as the representative of all the mid-major programs.

But then, finally, reality hit.

Florida 73, George Mason 58.

The Patriots could not deal with the defensive disruptions of Joakim Noah and the physical advantages of the Florida.

The Patriots had no answer for Noah, because they have no one like him.

They have no one who stretches to nearly seven feet and who plays with the furiousness of Noah.

That was Noah’s three-second lane.

Someone might as well have stenciled his name in the painted area.

Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, the post players of the Patriots, were ever conscious of the active Noah, who has some Marcus Camby in him.

Noah finished with four blocked shots and altered at least an equal number of other shot attempts.

And Noah and players like him are part of what separates the power conferences from the mid-major programs.

You can diagram the best X and O there is. You can make the right defensive changes and the right substitutions.

But you cannot stick your players on a ladder to shoot over someone with the resolve of Noah.

And the Patriots felt his presence whenever they ventured near the basket.

And they felt the presence of Al Horford, a 6-9 center. The starting front line of the Gators was 6-11, 6-9 and 6-8, while Lewis and Thomas top out at 6-7.

The Gators fashioned a 40-27 rebounding advantage on the Patriots. The Gators claimed 16 rebounds on the offensive end, which resulted in 19 second-chance points.

None of that was about coaching.

It was about the Gators being physically superior to the Patriots.

Patriots coach Jim Larranaga might come to the same conclusion after looking at the film.

“We came into the game feeling good about ourselves and our chances,” he said. “But for some reason, we were never able to establish our rhythm either offensively or defensively. And Florida’s ability to get so many second shots really hurt us. It took away opportunities.”

With Lewis and Thomas unable to establish a genuine presence in the three-second lane, the perimeter players of the Patriots felt an additional urge to be creative.

And that is not what they do best.

The Patriots converted only 2 of 11 3-point attempts and lacked a consistent weapon on offense.

With Florida guard Lee Humphrey hitting three 3-pointers in the opening two minutes of the second half, that was the beginning of the end for the Patriots.

The joy of the Patriots was giving way to a disappointing truth that they had been able to avoid against tournament opponents believed to be the equal of Florida.

Even Florida coach Billy Donovan embraced the long-shot quality of the Patriots.

“What they have been able to do has been great for college basketball,” he said. “I think they really have been able to inspire people in this tournament. There was no resentment on our part about the attention they received. We didn’t feel slighted. I am happy for them and coach Larranaga.”

But there was no happiness among the Patriots on this night, although they acknowledged their journey was a special one.

“Our players opened up the eyes of many people, including myself,” Larranaga said. “You don’t have to have 7-footers on your team or be the biggest and strongest team.”

But it helps a team to have size and strength, as the Florida trio of Noah, Horford and Corey Brewer showed the Patriots.

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