Mason to Sit Out Last Dance

Lamar Butler
Lamar Butler sheds some tears as George Mason's "magic carpet ride" comes to an end in Indianapolis. (John McDonnell - TWP)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS, April 1 -- George Mason's basketball team collected as many metaphors as victories during its remarkable three-week trip to the Final Four. The Patriots were kryptonite. They were Cinderella. They were on a magic carpet ride. They were David, registering blow after blow against Goliath.

It was dreamy stuff, and it left the school's Fairfax campus forever changed. But the imagery dissolved Saturday night, and what was left was a basketball game against a Florida squad that was taller, more athletic and more poised than George Mason. So Florida coasted to a 73-58 win and a berth in Monday's national championship game, and the Patriots packed up the metaphors and calmly reflected on the best basketball season their school had ever produced.

"I think we've done something tremendous for college basketball, for the teams that are out there that watched us play, just to show them that all you need is an opportunity and a chance," said Tony Skinn, one of George Mason's three senior starters whose career ended Saturday night. "I'm definitely happy I was a part of something special."

The game was played nine years to the day after Coach Jim Larranaga was hired at George Mason, and his players said they believed they could compete with any team in the country, including the Southeastern Conference champion Gators (32-6). But while it was close at halftime, nearly everything went wrong after intermission, and the Patriots' brief surge in the final nine minutes came far too late.

Gators guard Lee Humphrey, who scored 19 points, made three quick three-pointers after halftime to push the lead to double digits. George Mason's defense has confounded some of the best teams in the country, but the Gators shot better than 57 percent in the second half. The Patriots' guards, whose outside shooting helped down Connecticut in the region final, struggled from outside; George Mason (27-8) needed nearly 34 minutes to make its first three-pointer, while the Gators made 12 of 25 attempts.

But the biggest problems were inside, and those were evident from the beginning. Forwards Will Thomas and Jai Lewis had excelled in this tournament against a series of better-known prospects, but they hadn't faced someone with Joakim Noah's combination of height and athleticism.

Florida's lanky 6-foot-11 sophomore entered the night with 19 blocks in four tournament games, and while he had an up-and-down night offensively, he was everywhere on defense, blocking four shots and altering several others. Center Al Horford had 13 rebounds and also was a defensive presence, and George Mason's normally fluid offense looked ragged from the start.

"Not a lot of guys have been able to handle Will and Jai, and they did a good job of that tonight," Skinn said. "They took us out of our game."

Noah also led the Gators' offensive rebounding onslaught; 10 of their first 13 points came on second chances, and the Patriots were reduced to swatting at the ball, hoping it headed in a green-and-gold direction.

As has been their custom against heavyweight opponents, the Patriots stumbled early, trailing by 10 points after six-and-a-half minutes. But as has also been their custom, they rallied, drawing within five at halftime, which seemed a perfect situation. They had been down seven at halftime against North Carolina in the second round, down nine at halftime against Connecticut last weekend. As Lamar Butler walked off the court, he clapped his hands, shouting "20 more minutes."

But the second half could not have started worse. Humphrey hit consecutive three-pointers, Larranaga called a timeout and the Florida partisans roared. The Patriots missed their first six field goal attempts after halftime. Lewis and Thomas both misfired from close range. Florida's lead grew to 19 points.

"These kids are human," Larranaga said. "They've played as consistently and as well as they're capable of playing for an extremely long time."

A last-ditch rally narrowed the deficit to nine, but the Gators were nearly impeccable at the free throw line, making 12 of 15 in the second half. And in the final minutes they snatched one offensive rebound after another to clinch Florida's second championship game appearance. The Gators, who will aim for their first national title Monday night, have won 10 straight games and are 19-0 against teams from outside the SEC.

And George Mason? In the past three weeks, the Patriots earned wins over teams responsible for four of the last seven national championships. They became the first team from outside a power conference to advance to the Final Four since 1979, and the first 11th seed to advance to the Final Four since 1986. They set a school record for wins, claimed their first four NCAA tournament victories and attracted legions of new fans.

"We always tell our kids to dream the biggest dream," Larranaga said. "And we did, and we got a chance to live it."

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