Florida's 3-point shooting brought George Mason's improbable Final Four run to a jarring end Saturday night. The Gators made a dozen shots from outside the 3-point arc on the way to a 73-58 victory over the feel-good Patriots, who 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) will face either LSU or UCLA in Monday night's title game, the second in their history. Florida lost to Michigan State for the 2000 championship, also held in Indianapolis.
Lee Humphrey led the way by hitting 6-of-12 from 3-point range and scoring 19 points. He was joined in the outside barrage by Corey Brewer and Taureen Green, who hit three treys apiece for a team that went 12-of-25 beyond the stripe. By comparison, George Mason missed its first nine 3s and finished 2-of-11 — both of them coming too late to make any difference.
"I felt good tonight," Humphrey said. "My teammates did a good job of moving the ball around. I got some good looks."
On the inside, the Gators were nearly as dominating. Joakim Noah — his father, former tennis star Yannick Noah, cheering him on from the stands — scored 12 points and Al 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.
It was way too much for George Mason, the charming little commuter school from suburbs of northern Virginia. The 11th-seeded Patriots (27-8) knocked off half of last year's Final Four and the last two national champions on their march to Indy, but they were overwhelmed by a team that hasn't been seriously challenged in the tournament.
"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 first two minutes of the second half. The sharp-shooting guard made three straight from outside the arc, pushing the margin to 40-28. The Gators got 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," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "But I thought the key to the game was the 3-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 of their 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, a team that starts four sophomores and the junior Humphrey, 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.
George Mason's only lead was 2-0. Florida dominated the boards on the way to a 16-6 edge before the game was 7 minutes old.
"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."
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 team.
But Florida stubbornly held the lead the rest of the half despite hitting only 11 of 32 shots (34 percent). George Mason wasn't much better, missing several layups and managing just 38 percent shooting (11-of-29) from the field.
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."
By Paul Newberry