- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

DENVER — The encore for Mason Magic will have to wait another year.

Fifth-seeded Notre Dame ensured there would be no repeat of George Mason’s stunning run through the NCAA tournament two years ago, bolting to an early lead and eliminating the 12th-seeded Patriots 68-50 in a first-round East Region game before 19,282 at Pepsi Center.

The Fighting Irish made nine 3-pointers — six in the first half — to end the season of the Colonial Athletic Association champion Patriots (23-11).

“I am extremely proud of my team for making it to the NCAA tournament,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. “For my seniors, especially Will [Thomas] and Folarin [Campbell], who have been unbelievable leaders, students, every accolade you could describe … I just feel very badly for them to go out on a game like tonight.”

Notre Dame (25-7) will meet fourth-seeded Washington State (25-8) in tomorrow’s second round.

It was a disappointing conclusion for the Patriots, who hoped to build upon a postseason history most notable for a stunning Final Four appearance in 2006. And it marked the end of the college careers for both Thomas (25 points and seven rebounds) and Campbell (four points on 1-for-12 shooting), the two remaining starters from that endearing team.

It was Thomas who was in the middle of the players-only huddle just before tipoff, energizing his teammates as they began their attempt to match the 2006 surge through Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut. And it was Campbell handling the ball nearly every time up the floor.

But the Patriots’ woes had another historical bent to them. When they struggled during an uneven regular season, it was usually because their defense betrayed them. And when George Mason cruised to a CAA tournament title earlier this month, it was their stout defense that fortified them against any offensive struggles.

No matter how it was conjured over those three days, it was not present for spurts last night, particularly on the perimeter. The Irish held a distinct size advantage over the Patriots but opted to bury George Mason with a barrage of early 3-pointers from the frontcourt.

Indeed, it was not master marksman Kyle McAlarney (15 points) who foiled the Patriots in the first half. Nor was it burly bruiser Luke Harangody, who bulled his way to 18 points and 14 rebounds in a typically unsubtle performance.

Instead, it was Notre Dame’s bit players — its Luke Zellers and Ryan Ayerses and Zach Hilleslands — who slowly picked George Mason apart.

“They played great defense,” said Campbell, who was contained by Hillesland and Ayers. “They put a bigger guy on me and made it hard for me to get the ball. The majority of my shots were contested. The lanes were packed.”

George Mason’s offense struggled, too. The Patriots fell into a 3-for-19 funk from the floor for much of the first half and were on the wrong end of a 17-0 run. Campbell, in particular, struggled to find his shot early, his rushed 3-point attempt on an inbounds play in the closing seconds encapsulating 20 minutes worth of frustrations.

But he wasn’t the only quiet Patriots player. Thomas had 11 points in the first half, mostly on an array of efficient interior moves, to single-handedly outscore the rest of his teammates as George Mason trailed 33-21 at the break.

Campbell and Thomas were critical pieces of the Final Four team from two years ago, and the two entered within two points of each other on George Mason’s career scoring list. The pair, destined to be linked in program lore, declared earlier in the week there was no pressure on the Patriots and promised that just like in 2006, they would have the most fun of any team in the tournament.

Notre Dame made that second part exceedingly difficult, at least for 40 minutes.

One of the few lingering questions was how long it would take Campbell to score. His twisting, driving layup with 15:23 left provided an answer and one of the few on-court highlights for George Mason.

But true to the upbeat way Larranaga runs his program, the Patriots maintained the spirit of 2006 to the last — even if they didn’t stick around quite so long this time.

“To go to the Final Four, to go to the CAA title game twice and win once, it’s great,” Campbell said. “We’ve done a lot here. We know that. It’s just bad to go out this way.”

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