Mason Out of Magic

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS, April 1 -- The George Mason Patriots went further than anyone dreamed possible in this year's NCAA basketball tournament, yet they fell one victory shy of where they had come to believe they truly belonged: the championship game.

The 11th-seeded Patriots, who had never won an NCAA tournament game before this magical season, were manhandled by a better, more balanced Florida team -- dominant in its front court, eerily accurate from long range in its back court -- and fell, 73-58, Saturday night in the first of two national semifinal games at a sold-out RCA Dome.

Florida (32-6) advanced to Monday's final against UCLA, which defeated Louisiana State, while the Patriots will return to Fairfax ridden with regret over not having played better on Saturday yet proud to have turned the national spotlight on their school -- as well as on mid-level college basketball everywhere -- through their exploits these last few weeks.

Regardless of rooting interest, the 2006 NCAA tournament is sure to be remembered for George Mason shattering all notions of what is possible in college basketball.

"It's something that's going to go down in history," said senior guard Lamar Butler. "Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us. We changed the face of college basketball."

Added Coach Jim Larranaga, seeking, in his usual fashion, to accentuate the positive: "Nobody enjoyed the ride like they did."

The Patriots' run to the Final Four captured the imagination of a fan base that became more bloated with each victory and thrilled anyone whose loyalties instinctively lie with the underdog. And it gave new hope to "mid-major" teams at schools across the country that lack the basketball history and pedigree of past champions such as Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut -- all of whom George Mason's upstarts knocked off en route to Saturday's game.

But the Patriots met their match in third-seeded Florida and an unheralded guard named Lee Humphrey, who had the shooting night of his life, making six three-point tries (five in the second half) to put the Gators in firm control.

Larranaga's Patriots, who vaulted from obscurity to pop-icon-of-the-moment status in a few weeks, were an unlikely bunch of basketball superstars. While most Final Four contenders comb the nation's high school basketball powerhouses for their starting lineups, Larranaga could have just about thrown a rock from his office and hit the front door of all five of his starters' homes. They included a Fort Washington shooting guard with spindly legs; a 275-pound center from Aberdeen, Md., whose build was better suited to football; and a hodgepodge of others whom recruiters had dismissed for one reason or another.

But together, they put George Mason on the map -- both the campus and its namesake Founding Father, whose contributions to American history became a popular trivia question last week. As everyone from the band director to the mascot became a media fixation, the Patriots raised the profile and enriched the coffers of their lightly regarded conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, whose 12 member schools will now share in their biggest financial windfall as a result of George Mason's achievement, sharing an NCAA tournament payout estimated at $6 million, paid out over the next six years.

While energized Patriots fans, no doubt, will expect the team to build on its success, George Mason's 2006 tournament run was, in many ways, the result of a perfect storm -- a veteran team dominated by seniors who had come of age on court together, led by a masterful coach who had convinced them that anything and everything was within their grasp. And perhaps the final ingredient was the very absence of expectations. The Patriots were at least six-point underdogs in nearly every tournament game. So they played with total abandon; they played for fun.

"One of the greatest parts about this trip was we didn't put any pressure on ourselves," Larranaga said. "No one created the expectation except us. That we were going to continue to play the best basketball we could, no matter who we played."

So it was nothing new, then, for the Patriots to trot onto the RCA Dome's court as six-point underdogs to Florida, which had set a school record for victories (31) and toppled top-seeded Villanova in a similar setting (a domed football arena) the previous week.

In theory, NCAA Final Four tickets are equally divided among fans of all four teams. But the Florida Gators' faithful did a far better job finagling extras. Florida boasts 226,000 living alumni. George Mason, founded in 1972, has 76,000. And at times, it felt as if the full quarter-million Gators fans were at the RCA Dome, turning huge sections of the arena into a sea of orange-and-blue faces, chests, banners and pompons. They screamed louder than the outmanned Patriots fans. They clapped their arms in the Gator Chomp, as well orchestrated as the Rockettes, while the band blared the theme from "Jaws." And they hoisted a giant drawing of an orange pumpkin on wheels, with the slogan "George Mason team bus."

The Patriots scored the first basket, but never led again as Florida built a 19-point lead in the first eight minutes.

Florida's Joakim Noah, who stands 6 feet 11, dominated the area under the basket, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds with arms that unspooled like Spider-Man.

Meantime, the Gators' guards shot 40 percent from three-point range. Florida shot even better in the second half, while the Patriots couldn't make anything work.

Afterward, Larranaga acknowledged that the ingredients to the Final Four run had been rare, indeed. But he wasn't about to suggest the experience couldn't be replicated, vowing to return next season with the same determination.

"Whether that takes us to the Final Four, who knows?" Larranaga said. "The greater the expectation, the greater the pressure, the more likely you fall short. We'll just continue to be who we are and believe in the things we do and try to be the best we can."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company