Midnight for Mason

INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS -- All George Mason initially wanted was an opportunity, a chance to keep playing basketball and represent the other mid-major programs across the country that never got one.

The opportunities kept coming, though, and in the end, the Patriots wanted it all.


Convinced they had what it takes to win the national championship, the 11th-seeded Patriots took the court with confidence last night. It wasn't enough, though, as they were finally taken out of their offense and lost to a taller, stronger Florida team, 73-58, in the national semifinal at the RCA Dome.

With 47.8 seconds left, coach Jim Larranaga pulled his starters, and a swell of emotion became tangible, as tears mixed with the sweat on senior guard Lamar Butler's face. He wiped both off with his No. 22 jersey before burying his entire face in it.


"My career was over, of course I was going to be sad," said Butler, who finished with four turnovers. "Unfortunately it had to come to an end like that. We felt we could've won the game."

For weeks, George Mason seemed invincible, plowing through its NCAA tournament bracket and making believers out of doubters along the way. The Patriots knocked off Michigan State, defending champion North Carolina and a strong Wichita State team. After upsetting top-seeded Connecticut in the Washington Regional final last Sunday, the question turned from how did they do it, to why can't they do it again?

George Mason's unprecedented run through the NCAA tournament made winning a national championship for a mid-major believable again.

"I think we've done something tremendous for college basketball, for the teams that are out there that watched us play, just to show them that all you need is opportunity and a chance," said senior guard Tony Skinn, one of five starters from Maryland. "You've just got to go out there and play great basketball. I'm definitely happy I was a part of something special."

After the loss, Larranaga went around to each player in the locker room and congratulated him on the season.

"I think by what these players at George Mason have done, they've probably opened up the eyes of many people - including myself - that you don't have to have 7-footers on your team or be the biggest and strongest team to have a great basketball team," Larranaga said.

" ... I would just hope that our guys in future years would be able to look back and say they did something great rather than something happened where the expectation for guys just like themselves grows so much that nobody, nobody can enjoy the ride like we did."

It wasn't necessarily that George Mason lost, rather it was more the way the Patriots were eliminated.


Instead of a pop, the Patriots fizzled.

George Mason, a team that was shooting a tournament-high 41.9 percent from three-point range in the tournament, was just 2-for-11 last night, the complete opposite of what Florida was able to do.

Guard Lee Humphrey made six of the Gators' 12 three-pointers, and Florida outscored George Mason 36-6 from beyond the perimeter.

"You know, every time Lee shoots it, I think it's going in," said sophomore guard Taurean Green. "He's just that good of a shooter. When he gets it going, you can just tell by the way he releases it because every time he shoots it, he knows it's going in. In his head, he's like, 'That's good.'"

George Mason had been outrebounding its opponents throughout the tournament, but yesterday Florida's offensive rebounds prevented the Patriots from getting fast breaks.

The Patriots made the first basket of the game, but never led after that point. Instead, they fell behind by as many as 19 points with 11:49 left to play.


"We didn't play George Mason basketball," Butler said. "That wasn't us out there. It just wasn't our team tonight."

Larranaga recognized that. He stomped his foot on the court several times, and was visibly frustrated with his team as he watched it make uncharacteristic mistakes. The Patriots were trailing by 17 points when he called a timeout and urged them, his brows furrowed, to work the ball inside.

They couldn't, though, not against 6-foot-11 forward Joakim Noah, or 6-8 Al Horford. Noah blocked four shots, and Horford grabbed 13 rebounds. When Mason was able to get inside, the Patriots missed some layups.

"A lot of people doubted we'd get past Michigan State," senior center Jai Lewis said, "but I definitely think we could've made it to the championship if we would've done the things we were supposed to. Unfortunately, we missed some easy shots. If we would've made some easy layups, we would've been right in the game."

In the end, though, what mattered was that they even played in it at all.

"You know, this is history we're living right now," Butler said. "Whenever we talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us making it to the Final Four. This is history. We changed the face of college basketball."