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Archive for Sunday, April 2, 2006

Commentary: Patriots’ fairy tale up in smoke

April 2, 2006

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— George Mason awoke Saturday night and became George Mason again.

The carriage was a pumpkin. The horses were mice. Here was the team that had lost to Wake Forest, UNC Wilmington and Hofstra - twice.

Florida's 73-58 victory Saturday against George Mason in the Final Four pushed the Gators into the NCAA final and the Patriots out of the tournament. George Mason finally flopped.

I had an unusual vantage point for the defeat. By happenstance, my press row seat was no more than 10 feet from the Patriots' bench, and I could hear much of what George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said to his team.

Larranaga tried everything. His earsplitting whistles worked just as well in the RCA Dome as they do in smaller arenas - at least in terms of getting his own players' attention. But Larranaga's strategy failed. George Mason put much of its effort into controlling the game inside.

The Gators worked themselves open for one open three-point shot after another and seemed to make them all. Florida outscored George Mason 36-6 from beyond the arc. George Mason was only 2-for-11 from the three-point stripe for the game, didn't make a single three until 6:07 remained, and got outrebounded by 13.

So Larranaga was coaching from behind nearly the whole time. Here's a sampling of what Larranaga said during the game:

In the first few minutes, to his assistants while Florida's Joakim Noah was pulling down every rebound: "We've got to get Noah in foul trouble!" It never happened - Noah ended up with 12 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and three fouls.

Down 43-28 with 15:09 left in the game, following a 12-2 Gators run to open the second half, pausing between each word as his team huddled around him: "We haven't shown them our best!"

Shortly after that moment, when George Mason scored a basket in the paint: "That's what I want!" Larranaga yelled at his bench. "Put it inside!"

Doesn't sound like fairy-tale material, does it? It wasn't. George Mason was slower, smaller and less talented than Florida on Saturday. The Patriots looked like what they are, a team that comes from a smaller conference and doesn't usually recruit the same type of athletes as an SEC school.

George Mason had upset Michigan State, North Carolina and No. 1 seed Connecticut on its way here, becoming only the second No. 11 seed ever to make the Final Four.

Said George Mason guard Lamar Butler, who took his news conference nametag for a souvenir after the game: "We changed the face of college basketball. It was an amazing run. Unfortunately, it had to come to an end."

Said Florida coach Billy Donovan afterward: "Whether it said across their jerseys 'Cinderella' or 'George Mason' or another team, for us it was just a matter of going out there and playing."

George Mason whipped the odds throughout March. It was a wonderful story.

But, on April Fools' Day, the joke finally was on the Patriots.

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