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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

Gators too talented for Patriots

INDIANAPOLIS - George Mason, the so-called America's Team of college basketball and the darlings of the NCAA tournament, never had much of a chance last night. The 73-58 whipping Florida laid on the Patriots in a national semifinal game at the RCA Dome was all she wrote for coach Jim Larranaga and Co.

"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 seven-footers on your team or be the biggest and strongest team to have a great basketball team," said Larranaga, the former Bowling Green coach who arrived at George Mason in 1997. "We set such high standards in terms of winning. I'm very proud of these guys."

George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association did a commendable job of scrapping and clawing against Southeastern Conference tournament champion Florida and keeping the score respectable in the first half.

But it soon became evident that no matter how badly Larranaga's team wanted to win, no matter how much confidence Georga Mason had gleaned from knocking off North Carolina, Michiagn State and Connecticut in the tournament, or how loudly the boisterous crowd sensing another upset cheered for the Patriots, that an athletically gifted and just as confident Florida squad also had tomorrow night's championship game dead in its sights.

"It was an amazing run," George Mason guard Lamar Butler said. "Unfortunately, it had to come to an end."

Emotion and superb team play carried George Mason (27-8) this far. But superior talent and a perfect game plan carried Florida to a 15-point victory.

Ultimately, the 32-6 Gators were supposed to win because the word "Florida" is stitched across the front of their uniforms.

Florida basketball is about big-time recruits and a multi-million-dollar athletic budget.

George Mason reaching the Final Four was a heartwarming story, the best story in college basketball in years.

"This is history we're living right now," said Butler, one of three senior starters who played his final game for the best team in school history.

"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."

Without question, George Mason carried the banner proudly for mid-major programs everywhere.

But George Mason couldn't erase reality.

And the reality is the rich get richer.

George Mason didn't have any frontline player who could match sophomore big men Joakim Noah and Al Horford in terms of ability.

George Mason has solid, steady frontcourt players in Will Thomas and Jai Lewis, who combined for 23 points and 14 rebounds.

Noah (12 points, eight rebounds) and Horford (six points, game-high 13 rebounds) have game-altering basketball skills that were on display last night.

Florida's talent level and depth overwhelmed the Patriots.

Noah's shot-blocking took the Patriots out of their offensive rhythm.

His game-high four blocks contributed mightily to George Mason's game-long struggles to get its offense untracked.

Florida's considerable size advantage led to domination on the backboards. The Gators grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in the first half and outrebounded George Mason 40-27 overall.

Florida also has quicker and more explosive perimeter players. Sophomores Corey Brewer and Taurean Green and junior Lee Humphrey pulled the trigger against George Mason and proved difficult to defend. Florida's backcourt trio combined to shoot 15-of-32 from the field - including 12-of-25 3-point shooting - and score 53 points.

Humphrey, who scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, drilled three straight 3-pointers to turn a 31-26 lead at the break into 40-28 semi-runaway two minutes into the second half.

"Those 3s that he hit were big, just opened up the game," Green said.

And slammed the door shut on George Mason's chance to re-write history.



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