Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
4/01/2006 09:10:00 PM
Mason's Last Dance
Florida had four blocks on the night -- all by sophomore forward Joakim Noah.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As Florida sprinted out of the RCA Dome tunnel for the final time before tipoff on Saturday night, it was greeted by the sound of the George Mason band, belting out Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer -- the unofficial theme song of the Patriots' Cinderella run to the Final Four.
The song had legs, having accompanied Mason in upsets of Michigan State, North Carolina, and UConn. And as the Patriots' student section, a dense strip of yellow shirts rising up behind the band, belted out the chorus -- Whoaoh, we're halfway there -- there was almost a feeling that the Gators, no matter whom they had trampled to reach Indy, were up against some unstoppable force.
That was, until the Gators showed Mason that it had no prayer against their unmatched group of athletes, and cruised to a 73-58 victory and a berth in Monday's title game. The amazing ride that made the Pats the first mid-major Final Four team since Indiana State and Penn in 1979 finally derailed; not because Mason didn't deserve to be here, but simply because it ran into the most dominant, least-vulnerable team in entire NCAA tournament: Florida.
The Pats knocked down 9-of-18 3s en route to stunning the No. 1-seeded Huskies in Washington D.C. last Sunday; on Saturday against UF's perimeter defense of Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, Mason hit zero treys in the first half, and just 2-of-11 in the game. That Gators trio, meanwhile, combined to light up GMU's previously stout D for 12 3s and a total of 53 points.
Patriots forwards Will Thomas and Jai Lewis took advantage of UConn's lackadaisical post men, Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone, in the Elite Eight, backing them into the paint and outscoring them 39-14, and outrebounding them 19-11. Facing the tourney's hyper-active breakout star, the Gators' Joakim Noah, however, was another story.
Noah, who initially skipped out onto the floor and shouted, "Let's get pumped!" over the GMU band, overwhelmed Thomas and Lewis with his high-intensity game. After a Humphrey 3-pointer put the Gators up 34-26 just 15 seconds into the second half, Noah came down on the defensive end and swatted Lewis, and Mason proceeded to go into an 0-of-6 funk to start the second half, falling behind 47-30 in the 13th minute. Noah and power forward Al Horford outrebounded Thomas and Lewis 21-14, and as a team, Florida outboarded Mason 40-27. For the first time of the entire dance, the Patriots looked like a mid-major -- a CAA team facing the best of the SEC.
No one in the Mason camp was willing to play the "We're just happy to be here" card earlier in the week, and rightfully so: They had earned their way to Indy with lock-down D and lights-out shooting from the perimeter, and as coach Jim Larranaga said, they "captured the hearts of a lot of Americans" in the process. While the Patriots went out with a thud more appropriate of their band's second song on Saturday -- the Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated -- they should by no means be dejected. Mason probably just lost to the eventual national champion. And this was one case where, just by making it to Saturday night -- no matter what happened against the Gators -- an underdog had already etched its place in history.
As a Mason alum, I cant say I am excited about how things turned out, but "a thud?" That diminishes the accomplishments of a great group of kids and a better coach. FL was by far the better team tonight and will go on to win the NCAA Championship. A thus sounds to me like a 1 seed destroyed a 2 seed. These kids were an 11 seed, so lets settle down on the "thud." We may not be back next year but we let the quality of our program be know. My best to FL - they are one hell of a team.
This Florida team is simply outstanding. They epitomize what a team is supposed to be and their energy is infectious. As long as Florida plays their game, they can beat anyone.
I agree that what George Mason did was historic and great for the game and the tournament but I do feel it would kind of be nice for them to give just a little credit to Florida in the loss.
Regardless, it has been an amazing tournament - GMU made history and Florida gets to play for the championship - what more can you ask for (I guess not an all-SEC final - what in the world has happened to LSU?}
Florida played a spectacular game, but I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed at Mason's mediocre performance. I'd have been thrilling if they went down fighting, but after the games they'd played so far, it was more like a mighty whimper. Ball-dropping, tanking layups, leaving the perimeter wide-open; this was easily the worst game they've played in the tournament. Sad to watch them go out on a low. Still, it hardly diminishes the fact that they were there. Many congrats to Florida for a killer defense and 3-point Bombing from Hell. I know who I'm rooting for on Monday.
After Humphrey started draining all those "tres" you could see GM start to wilt and collapse... they had a great year but were indeed overwhelmed by a big-time program... It was a nice change to see a small school make it so far against the big boys
It'll be a great game between Florida and UCLA. And whichever team wins will go down in NCAA basketball history as the 2006 champion. But for me personally, I'll always regard George Mason as the real "winner" because of all they accomplished; and more than that they brought back the "spirit" in college basketball. Thanks for everything GMU!!!
I wish I could say that I saw this coming. I watched eery Gator game I could this season and while they showed flashes of brilliance, they still seemed a bit vulnerable. I guess I paid too much attention to the naysayers. The fact is, with the exception of the first game against South Carolina, when the Gators made a ton of late threes to make it seem closer than it was, the Gators did not lose a game by more than 5 or 6 points. They were in every game. Nobody blew them out the doors. It looks like the old cliche of losing a few games being a good wake-up call was true for Florida. Since the tournament began and Florida's roll began to develop, we have gotten more information about what went on in the locker room during the mid-season slump. The Gators have bounced back like true Champions and finished strong in the SEC Tournament and now in the NCAA's. Let's just hope they can really finish like Champs and run the table. By the way, it would seem that losing twice this year to South Carolina and barely beating them in the SEC Final is nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody in the NIT could beat them either. I am sort of glad that LSU got beat because it might have been their turn to exact their revenge against the Gators ala Florida finally beating Carolina in the SEC Finals. Tomorrow should be a great game. UCLA overwhelmed LSU. It looked like men against boys. The Bruins were all over the Tigers. They were completely smothered. After an exhibition like that, I am hoping the Gators do not get caught off guard. Should be a great game!
As a Mason alum who was at every home game during my time as a student, I was overjoyed when they made the NCAA tournament. For twenty years that has been the mark of an unusually successful season. Of course, no one expected them to actually win a game once they got there. This year things were different. They actually won a game, not just once, but four times! And against important oppontents. It was a underdog rooting dream. GMU gained the nation's respect, and seeing Florida win the national championship will make the GMU saga even better. Go Gators!