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Amazin' Mason grabs spotlight Florida plays 'villain' in surprising story NCAA Tournament: LSU, UCLA, Florida play supporting roles in national championship drama

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's not George Mason and the other three guys at the Final Four tonight in the RCA Dome. It only seems that way.

The upstart Patriots meet Florida in the first national semifinal with LSU and UCLA playing the nightcap. But it's Mason, the first mid-major to get to the Final Four since 1979, that continues to garner most of the attention. It's the curiosity of the nation's casual fans and bracketologists.

"I think we're definitely going to be the villain," admitted Florida sophomore Joakim Noah, whose team is favored by many experts to end one of the most remarkable runs in tournament history. "Right now, it doesn't matter because it's do or die. We've been through a lot of experiences this year. People have been against us, we've been in very hostile environments."

George Mason practiced before more than 15,000 fans Friday afternoon and enjoyed every minute of it. When the 50-minute session ended, the players went to the ends of the court and high-fived their cheerleaders, their band and any fan who wanted to slap hands.

"We're a bunch of no-name guys playing in the biggest sporting event in the world and loving it," said Mason coach Jim Larranaga.

"Our kids aren't fazed at all," added Mason Athletics Director Tom O'Connor, the former St. Bonaventure AD. "They walked in and said, 'This is a nice place.' Nice place? This is the epitome of basketball."

Florida coach Billy Donovan has an idea what Mason is going through. He played for the 1987 Providence team that roared to the Final Four in New Orleans in its first tourney appearance in 11 years.

"I can definitely feel and experience what they're going through," Donovan said. "I think it's the same feeling and experience that our basketball team has. I think when you started the year and you said, 'Listen, Florida and George Mason are going to be playing each other in the national semifinal,' I think a lot of people would have said, 'Come on.' "

"It's definitely been a great thing to see everybody pulling for George Mason," said Patriots guard Tony Skinn. "Even though we're far away from home, I think we have just about everybody cheering for us."

While the bulk of the attention during the tournament has been on Mason's hot streak, the combatants in the nightcap feel blessed to be here as well. LSU needed a last-second shot to beat Texas A&M in the second round, while UCLA scored the last 11 points to somehow overcome Gonzaga in the regional semifinals.

"You don't get this opportunity to play on a stage like this, to win one of the 'immortality trophies,' " said Glen "Big Baby" Davis, LSU's 310-pound sophomore. "That's what I call it. You win the trophy, you live forever, basically. I'm just trying to soak it up, take it in, take a humble approach to it. Don't get too wound up, try to act my weight, not my age."

"Being an L.A. kid, you know how big UCLA is," said Bruins guard Jordan Farmar. "Walking into Pauley Pavilion every day for practice, you see those 11 [championship] banners up there hanging. I think it makes us set our goals higher and strive for more."

Florida's Donovan is the only one of the four head coaches who has been here before. He led the Gators to the championship game against Michigan State in 2000, the last time the Final Four was in Indy. Larranaga was an assistant on Virginia's 1984 Final Four team. UCLA coach Ben Howland is trying to join the legendary John Wooden and Jim Harrick as Wizards of Westwood who have won titles.

"The George Mason story is a special story," said Howland, whose career began to take off when he took a mid-major (Northern Arizona) to the NCAAs in 1998. "George Mason is that mid-major program that has three seniors that have been through the wars, that are older. They're men, they're not deterred."

"We're happy to be here, no doubt," said Mason senior guard Lamar Butler. "At the same time, this is a business trip. We didn't come here just to come to the Final Four, visit, take pictures. We came here to play the Florida Gators and win the game."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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