By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
The Gators make 12 3-pointers, six by Lee Humphrey, to end the Patriots surprising run and advance to the title game.
INDIANAPOLIS - Admit it, Gator fans. You never thought you'd hear these words this season.
Florida will play for the national championship Monday night.
The Gators' surprising run in the NCAA men's basketball tournament continued Saturday night. With a barrage of 3-pointers led by Lee Humphrey, the Gators defeated George Mason 73-58 in the first national semifinal game at the RCA Dome.
Florida (32-6) will face UCLA in the final. "All we've got to do is play our best game Monday night, and we accomplish our goal of winning it all," forward Corey Brewer said. "One more.
"That's all we need."
The Gators knew going in they weren't the sentimental favorite, that the majority of fans love the underdog and were pulling for their opponent. The Patriots (27-8) had never won a Tournament game before this season. But afterward, the Florida players likened themselves to the fairy-tale princess, calling this a dream season.
"If you think about it, we're kind of like Cinderella," center Al Horford said. "We started the season ranked like 75, 83 or 40-something, depending on where you looked. And now look at where we are."
The key matchup was supposed to be Florida's dominating big men, Horford and Joakim Noah, against George Mason's 6-foot-7, 275-pound Jai Lewis.
It turned out to be something completely different.
Florida coach Billy Donovan likes to call the 3-point line "the great equalizer." Saturday night, it was the Gators' savior. It kept the Gators in the game in the first half and allowed them to pull away early in the second. The Gators were 12-of-25 from beyond the arc, tied for second most in an NCAA national semifinal and an RCA Dome Final Four record. Meanwhile, George Mason shot 2-of-11 from 3-point range and didn't make its first until Tony Skinn's with 6:07 remaining in the game.
"The big focus for us was the 3-point line," said Donovan, who has led the Gators to two national title games during his 10-year tenure. "(The Patriots') shooting percentage over a four-game period (in the Tournament) went from 32 percent in the regular season to 42 percent.
"We really talked a lot about the 3-point line and trying to change and mix up double teams to try to keep them off balance."
Florida led by as many as 10 in the first half but clung to a five-point lead after the Patriots rallied late. The Gators took over immediately in the second half, opening with a 10-2 run - all scored by Humphrey.
The Tennessee native hit 3-pointers on the Gators' first two possessions then hit another 3-pointer and 1 of 3 free throws to give Florida a 41-28 lead 2:36 into the half. He made six 3-pointers for the game, and Florida's 16-4 run over the first 6:38 of the second half essentially sealed the win.
"For some reason, we were never able to really establish our rhythm either offensively or defensively," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "And Florida's ability to get so many second shots really hurt us. It took away opportunities. Florida's ability to keep us from getting fastbreaks because of their offensive rebounding was a significant difference in the first half.
"Then their great start took over the game in the second half."
Although the Gators were outscored 32-18 inside the paint and had zero fastbreak points, they shot 57 percent from the field and outrebounded the Patriots 40-27, getting 11 of their 16 offensive rebounds during the first half.
"They picked the wrong poison," senior forward Adrian Moss said. "They tried to stop the inside game, and instead, the guards went off. That's how balanced this team is."
Horford's 13 rebounds (to go with six points) tied Larry Johnson for an RCA Dome Final Four record (UNLV vs. Duke in 1991), and Noah's four blocked shots (to go with 12 points) also tied an arena record in the Tournament. Noah now has a school-record 23 during the NCAA Tournament.
Taurean Green added 15 points, but the point guard had no assists. Humphrey and Brewer had 19 points while Brewer added six rebounds.
"We kissed Cinderella, put her back in the carriage and sent her home to her stepsisters," Brewer said with a smile.
"That's where she belongs."