Archive for Sunday, April 2, 2006

Patriots’ dream derailed

April 2, 2006


— Lee Humphrey lingered outside the arc, determined to keep on shooting.

Swish. Swish. And make it three.

Appropriately enough, the Final Four longshot was doomed by the long shot.

Humphrey hit three straight three-pointers to start the second half, and Florida brought George Mason back to reality Saturday night, ending the Patriots' stunning run through the NCAA Tournament with a 73-58 victory.

The Gators made a dozen shots from outside the three-point stripe - tying a national semifinal record. Humphrey had six of them, leading Florida into Monday night's championship game against UCLA.

"Humpty was a monster tonight," teammate Joakim Noah said. "When he's hitting shots like that, we're tough to beat."

Too tough for 11th-seeded George Mason (27-8), the charming mid-major from the suburbs of northern Virginia, which knocked off the last two national champions and half of last year's Final Four on its way to Indy. The feel-good Patriots simply couldn't handle an immensely talented team that has arrived at the cusp of the school's first national title a year ahead of schedule.

The youthful Gators (32-6) probably have been the most impressive team in the tournament, withstanding only one serious challenge in their five victories. They are winning by an average of 16 points a game in the postseason.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, left, yells at his players as Will Thomas covers his head with a towel. Florida beat the upstart Patriots, 73-58, Saturday in Indianapolis.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, left, yells at his players as Will Thomas covers his head with a towel. Florida beat the upstart Patriots, 73-58, Saturday in Indianapolis.

"We're playing our best basketball all year and we're a really tough team," said Al Horford, one of four sophomores in the starting lineup. "You can't stop us."

Humphrey, a junior, is largely overshadowed by his younger teammates. And he struggled in the first half, making only one of five shots - all of them from beyond the stripe.

But coach Billy Donovan told the guard to keep shooting, and Humphrey responded with the three straight threes that pushed the Gators to a 40-28 lead before two minutes were gone in the second half.

"He's a silent assassin," said another of the sophomores, Corey Brewer. "He doesn't get a lot of hype. Nobody knows too much about him, but Lee Humphrey wins basketball games for the Florida Gators."

The Gators are heading to the second title game in school history. They lost to Michigan State in the 2000 final.

Humphrey finished with 19 points and 6-of-12 shooting from three-point range. He was joined in the outside barrage by Brewer and Taureen Green, who hit three treys apiece for a team that went 12-of-25.

Florida's Corey Brewer cheers during the second half. Brewer scored 19 for the Gators.

Florida's Corey Brewer cheers during the second half. Brewer scored 19 for the Gators.

"I felt good tonight," Humphrey said. "My teammates did a good job of moving the ball around. I got some good looks."

By comparison, George Mason missed its first nine 3s and finished 2-of-11 - both of them coming too late to make any difference. They were much more accurate in their four tournament wins, making 26-of-62 (42 percent).

On the inside, the Gators were nearly as dominating. Noah - his father, former tennis star Yannick Noah, cheering him on from the stands - scored 12 points. Horford grabbed 13 rebounds.

Florida finished with a 40-27 edge on the boards, playing keep-away in the final two minutes with three straight offensive rebounds.

"We came into the game feeling good about ourselves and feeling good about our chances," said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who tried to inspire his team with a pre-game poem. "For some reason, we were never really able to establish our rhythm, either offensively or defensively. And Florida's ability to get so many second shots really hurt us."

Florida built a 10-point lead in the first half and withstood a couple of George Mason runs for a 31-26 lead at halftime. Appropriately enough, Green closed the opening period with a couple of 3s.

Humphrey took over in the second half. The Gators pushed their lead as high as 19 points and the Patriots never got any closer than nine the rest of the way.

"George Mason has been playing great," Donovan said. "But I thought the key to the game was the three-point line. That was one thing missing from what people were talking about."

Tony Skinn and Jai Lewis scored 13 points apiece for the Patriots, who missed countless layups and easy shots in the lane that might have gotten them in position to pull off another stunner.

The George Mason band played "All I Need Is A Miracle" as the Patriots warmed up before the game. The players didn't seem too nervous - Jordan Carter and Charles Makings joked around with each other during the layup drills, while several teammates glanced toward their school's green-and-gold-clad section, as if trying to see if their family and friends had found their way into the RCA Dome.

The underdog Patriots trotted on the court past the Florida section, which greeted them with Gator chops. But the rest of the crowd seemed to be pulling for George Mason. A fan wearing an LSU shirt held up a "Go Mason" sign. The UCLA fans also cheered every time the Patriots scored.

But Florida wasn't intimidated by the crowd or the knowledge that nearly everyone outside the Sunshine State was pulling for one of the most unlikely teams in Final Four history.

"What they've been able to do this year is great for basketball," Donovan said. "Most teams don't get a chance to experience what they've been able to experience. In this tournament, they were able to inspire a lot of people. There was no resentment on our team for feeling like they got all the attention or we got slighted."

George Mason's only lead was 2-0. Florida was ahead 16-6 before the game was 7 minutes old.

The Patriots tried mightily to get back into it. Florida went cold in the first half, missing six straight shots during a scoring drought of nearly five minutes.

George Mason went on an 11-2 spurt, closing within one point of the Southeastern Conference school where football is king but basketball is on the brink of a title. But the Patriots never caught up.

Before the final seconds ticked away, Larranaga pulled out his starters so they could get one final ovation from the crowd.

It was well deserved.

From now on, every mid-major will feel like it has a chance to compete with the big boys.

"I think we did something tremendous for college basketball and for teams out there who watched us play," Skinn said. "We showed them that all you need is opportunity and a chance."


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