Handling Gators is too tall a task

April 02, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS-- --Every team George Mason has faced the past three weeks has looked, on paper and at the opening tip, like the better team. Last night at the RCA Dome, a team finally played like it.

So much so that even Folarin Campbell, one of the many relentlessly positive Patriots players who fueled the historic Cinderella bid, couldn't deny it. Asked if his team had played below its capacity or if the Final Four opponent, Florida, was just better, Campbell admitted: "I think they were the better team today. They played an excellent game, an all-around game. They really got to us."

It wasn't necessarily a unanimous opinion in the losing locker room, but then again, that kind of thinking is what got George Mason here. It just wasn't enough to get the Patriots to tomorrow night and the national championship game. Florida will be there because Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey and the rest of the Gators were bigger, quicker and sharper than George Mason.

It wasn't by a huge margin, even though the Gators' lead in the second half reached 19 at one point and was a comfortable 73-58 at the end. The Mason faithful will cherish forever the fact that in the first half they were within a point with less than four minutes to go, two points with one minute left, five at the half - and after a rout seemed imminent, just nine with less than five minutes to go.

All tournament long, everything had seemed possible. Overcoming these Gators, at long last, turned out to be impossible.

Still, it took five games spread over three miraculous weekends for someone to prove that rankings, reputations and labels do not a champion make. Florida went out and stopped the little mid-major engine that could. That's something Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut couldn't manage.

"Whether it said across their jersey Cinderella, George Mason or another team, for our basketball team, it's just a matter of going out there and playing," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

No one will ever know (or at least admit) that the Patriots were overlooked by teams throughout their ride to the brink of glory. What is known is that George Mason played on their level all month, until last night, when the level simply got too high.

"We proved to everybody that we belonged," said Will Thomas, who bounced back from a scoreless first half among the trees to battle for 10 points in the second. "We made it all the way to the Final Four, and no one can take that from us. The doubters - they can keep on doubting."

But this can't be doubted. No matter what the Patriots players said with the pain of defeat still fresh - that they made too many mistakes and didn't execute and didn't play their best game - Florida was the real thing last night. Noah was, in fact, too big and fast for them, Horford too big and strong, Humphrey too good to miss from three-point land when left open.

Yet it only paid off for the Gators at certain critical times, rather than from start to finish. The first two minutes of the second half, for instance, when Humphrey made three of his six three-pointers to single-handedly grow Florida's lead from five to 12. It happened because everything the Patriots had, they had to throw onto the giants up front.

The game evolved into a sort of tease. George Mason would go chase the shooters, and the giants took over; the giants drew extra defenders, and the shooters went to work.

Oh, the Patriots never backed down. They ignored the fact that Noah and Horford had made them eat some shots and had altered others; they kept storming. Campbell threw in the shot of the game in the first half, sweeping in from the left and flipping one in nearly underhanded just past Noah's reach. In the second, Thomas and Jai Lewis - both shorter than Gators small forward Corey Brewer - kept posting up and pounding away, working the rim and trying, in vain, to get the Gators duo in real foul trouble.

It never was enough. Mason's last chance to close the gap at the end was negated by that signature two-minute Florida possession, fueled by three offensive rebounds, the last two by Horford. The display of dominance was almost gratuitous.

It also was a way to put away a team that had steadfastly refused to go away, to remember its place, to step aside for the grown-ups. The fact that someone had finally finished them didn't diminish what the Patriots had accomplished.

"With the teams we beat to get here," Campbell said, "there was no reason for us to leave the Dome with our heads down."

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

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