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Patriots Suffer Glass Slippage

George Mason's Cinderella run ends with a 73-58 loss to determined Florida.

April 02, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Florida finally yanked the magic carpet out from under George Mason, and one of the most memorable runs in NCAA tournament history ended Saturday with a 73-58 Florida victory that put the Gators in the national championship game Monday night against UCLA.

"Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you'll have to mention us making it to the Final Four," said Lamar Butler, the George Mason guard whose megawatt smile finally dimmed when reality set in as he pulled his jersey over his face on the bench in the final minute.

"It was an amazing run," Butler said. "Unfortunately it had to come to an end."

The little-known Patriots were only the second 11th-seeded team ever to reach the Final Four, and their fans at the RCA Dome roared the words to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" as the school's band played the song that became their anthem as George Mason upset Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut on the way to the Final Four.

But the Patriots (27-8) couldn't overcome a Florida team that buried them on the boards, blocked shot after shot and broke open a close game with a flurry of threes early in the second half.

Lee Humphrey, a guard who separated his shoulder in a bicycle accident this season, made three three-pointers in the first two minutes after halftime to stake Florida (32-6) to a 12-point lead that grew to 19 before George Mason's last comeback stalled when it couldn't get closer than nine with 4:48 left.

"Whether it said across their jersey 'Cinderella' or 'George Mason' or another team, for us as a basketball team, it's just a matter of going out there and playing," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said.

Led by Humphrey, who scored 19 points and made six of 12 three-point attempts, Florida made 12 of 25 shots from long range in the game. Swingman Corey Brewer made three of six and finished with 19 points as well.

Just as important, the Gators shut down the three-point attack that had helped carry George Mason this far.

Donovan noted the Patriots' shooting percentage from beyond the arc had gone from about 35% during the regular season to 42% during the NCAA tournament and decided his team would focus its defensive effort there.

After making nine three-pointers in their upset of top-seeded Connecticut, the Patriots didn't make one against Florida until a little more than six minutes remained, and finished two for 11 in the game.

"I thought we were going to play a great game today," George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said. "We were in the perfect mental frame of mind. Our shootaround this afternoon, I had to stop it, the energy level was so high. When we took the floor, I was still feeling that way.

"But a few minutes into the game we did not show that natural rhythm that we had the last few weeks at both ends of the floor. Part of it was their offensive rebounding."

Florida grabbed 16 offensive rebounds -- six by Al Horford, who had a game-high 13 rebounds overall -- and outrebounded George Mason by 13. Joakim Noah was held to 12 points but had eight rebounds and was credited with four blocks, though many observers thought he had more.

Another factor in the game, Larranaga suggested, was the sensation of playing in a massive dome, often an uncomfortable feeling for shooters.

Butler, for one, said Friday he'd never even been in one before.

Florida won the Minneapolis Regional playing in a dome.

"I think it definitely couldn't have hurt, because both of these gyms are really similar," Humphrey said.

Florida returns to the national championship game for the second time in seven seasons, after losing to Michigan State in 2000.

George Mason might never get this far again.

"This is something that's going to go down in history," forward Jai Lewis said. "A lot of teams don't get the opportunity to even make it to the tournament. All you need is the opportunity."

Donovan echoed him, and praised George Mason as a team he enjoyed watching on tape.

"They're a team that plays together, plays passionately and hard," he said.

"I've often said this, the NCAA tournament to me, what's the lottery motto? You got to be in it to win it? If you get in enough, you're going to have a chance to make something happen."

George Mason dreamed of more.

The day before the game, Butler asked if he could have the card identifying him at the news conference for a souvenir, but was told he'd have to wait.

He started to get up and walk away Saturday, then looked longingly back, and picked it up.

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