The equalizer was indeed the three-point shot. Led by Lee Humphrey, who hit five of his six three-pointers in the second half, the Gators went 12-25 from beyond the arc for a 36-6 scoring margin. George Mason was held without a three-pointer in the first half and they only got their first one when Tony Skinn knocked one down with 6:05 remaining in the game
"We never got it going on the perimeter," said George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga. "They certainly did, far better than anybody else we've defended throughout the tournament and probably throughout the year. Not many teams shoot 48 percent against us. A lot of the credit, I think, has to go to Lee Humphrey."
Humphrey had good looks that just wouldn't go down in a funky first half in which the Gators played in spurts on their way to a 31-25 lead. Florida dominated the boards early for a 16-6 lead but the Patriots clawed their way back to within one, 25-24, on a three-point play the old-fashioned way by Skinn with 3:48 left in the half but Taurean Green answered with a pair of three-pointers down the stretch to give the Gators their halftime margin.
Even though Humphrey was only 1-5 from three-point land in the first half, Florida's game plan didn't change.
"We always look for Lee Humphrey," said Corey Brewer, who was an impressive 3-6 from beyond the arc as part of a solid, 19-point, six-rebound performance. "If he's open, he's going to shoot it and we tell him to keep on shooting. They left him open in the second half."
The plan for Humphrey to shoot may not have changed, but how Florida got him the ball did. Donovan thought Florida was taking its shots too early in the shot clock in the first half and particularly, he felt the Gators weren't trying to get their three-point looks after making the George Mason defenders sag to protect the inside against Al Horford and Joakim Noah.
"We shot only 34 percent in the first half and in the second half coach told us to go inside out and we did that and we got some good looks from the three point line and that got us going," said Al Hoford, who finished with six points and 13 rebounds. "They left Lee Humphrey open and that's somebody you can't let get started."
The Gators dumped the ball down to Horford on their first second half possession and when the defense sagged, the ball kicked back out to Humphrey who knocked down a three from the right wing. The next trip down the floor, the ball went to Noah and again, when the defense collapsed, the next pass was to Humphrey and the junior from Maryville, Tennessee nailed his second straight three-ball for a 37-26 Florida lead with 19:09 left in the game.
Those first two shots set the tone for the rest of the game.
"Lee came out and he throws in those three ppointers and that just opened up the game," said Green, who scored 15 points. "That gave us a good lead and we just tried to stay aggressive. When he's hitting like that, there's nothing that you can do to stop him.
"You know, every time Lee shoots it, I think it's going in. When he gets it going, you can 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!' "
The three-point opportunities were simply the result of the Gators following Donovan's halftime instructions. Donovan felt Florida played into George Mason's hands in the first half, taking shots far too early in the shot clock without first making extra passes to create wide open opportunities.
His halftime strategy was to work the ball deeper into the shot clock but even though he wanted longer possessions, the orders for Humphrey were to shoot any time he had a good look no matter how early in the shot clock.
"In the second half we had much better ball movement, player movement and we worked inside to out," said Donovan. "We tried to put some of their bigger people in pick and rolls and obviously Lee Humphrey was able to get freed up to knock down some threes which gave us a cushion."
Humphrey knocked down a third straight three with 18:03 remaining to extend Florida's lead to 40-28. At that point, the middle opened up and 10 of Florida's next 11 points came from the inside.
The Gators stretched the lead to 20 (58-38) on a pair of free throws by Brewer with 8:46 left but the Patriots had one last run left in them. Skinn's three-pointer got them back to 11 with 6:05 left and after Humphrey hit another three for the Gators, the Patriots countered with a layup by Will Thomas and their only other three-pointer of the game by Folarin Campbell to cut the margin to nine (64-55) with 4:47 left.
At that point, the large George Mason contingent was on its feet, making plenty of noise. The Patriot faithful sensed the kind of rally that would extend this Cinderella story but Florida wouldn't fold. The Gators got to the foul line on their next two possessions, both times after making stops on the defensive end. Green and Brewer both hit their free throws to build the Gators lead back to 13 (68-55) with 3:55 left.
The rest of the way, it was a combination of Florida defense and the Gators' ability to get a new shot clock with offensive rebounding. The Patriots couldn't control the ball and couldn't find a way to mount one last run.
"I am shocked that we were not in the game in the last three or four minutes because we hadn't played a game the entire year where we weren't in it down the stretch," said Larranaga. "We lost seven times. Today was the eighth, but five times for sure the ball was in our chance with one minute or less."
This time, with less than a minute to go, the Gators had a huge lead.
"Not until I looked up at the clock and there was under two minutes it was at 15 did I realize, gee, we're not going to have a shot at this," said Larranaga. "All through the second half I thought at some point we'd start going into a nice offensive rhythm of inside-outside, taking the ball to the basket."
That never happened because Florida's defense on the perimeter was just too good and too consistent throughout the game.
"This whole tournament, defense wins games," said Noah. "The guards really stepped up and brought their game to a complete different level. That's where the strength of this team is at …anybody can step up."
Noah didn't have one of his more impressive games, even though he scored 12 points, hauled in eight rebounds and blocked four shots, but on this evening, all Florida's big guys had to do was defend the inside and control the rebounds (Florida finished with a 40-27 advantage there). Humphrey, Green and Noah took care of the offensive load for Florida.
"Humpty Dump is a monster," said Noah. "Humpty Dump is a monster and TGreen is a monster and Corey Brewer… when CB is playing the way he's playing we're a different team. I know that puts extra pressure on Corey but he's been playing so tough in this tournament. He just opens the game up so much for me and Al. This team is just so special because everybody steps up at different times."
The Gators will need to step it up one more time and that's Monday night in their second trip in school history to the national championship game. It's a nice accomplishment for a team that some experts predicted number 75 in the nation at the beginning of the year.
"The Gator Boys are hot …they're shining," said Noah.
And Monday night they may shine brighter than ever before in Florida basketball history.