- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

DENVER — It was difficult for Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas to trudge out of George Mason’s locker room one last time.

But even for a pair of program legends, it was inevitable.

Both Campbell and Thomas completed college careers crammed with memories late Thursday night, the last a 68-50 loss to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Pepsi Center.

The two seniors won’t play again for George Mason, which wrapped up a 23-11 season that featured a CAA tournament title. But their impact in vaulting the program to unforeseen success — measured in part by the 2006 Final Four banner hanging in Patriot Center — is indisputable.

“I’m very proud,” Thomas said. “You never want to go out in a loss, especially as a senior. But it’s been a great four years here, and I’ve had a lot of fun here. I had a lot of fun this season. Just being given the opportunity to play college basketball has been a great experience.”

Campbell and Thomas, along with guard Jordan Carter, belonged to a group who entered school when George Mason was a barely known basketball commodity. Sure, the Patriots had made three NCAA tournaments and boasted a great player in George Evans at the turn of the century, but they weren’t the source of inspiration they would become.

The 2006 Final Four run changed that, and three of the starters from that storybook season were seniors. It left Campbell and Thomas as the most recognizable players for a team that would never be quite the same.

They turned out to be franchise players. And if, as coach Jim Larranaga said Thursday, Evans was the Patriots’ George Washington, neither Campbell nor Thomas landed too far down the presidential pantheon in program history.

“Will and Folarin were — are — two players who came in together and became our Mr. Inside and our Mr. Outside,” Larranaga said. “They complemented each other in every aspect of life.”

Both scored more than 1,500 points, and they will be missed for different reasons. Thomas proved again Thursday his propensity for thriving in any environment. Faced with Notre Dame’s huge frontcourt, the lefty turned to his fluid array of moves and produced a 25-point night.

It was a less-than-memorable finale for Campbell, who shot 1-for-12 and could never seem to find an open look in what became a four-point night. But it did not diminish the career he produced at George Mason.

“You can’t replace a Will Thomas or a Folarin Campbell,” junior guard Dre Smith said. “We’re going to miss them a lot. They left big shoes behind for me and John [Vaughan] to fill. We know how we much we have to put in to fill those shoes, but we’re going to try to keep it going.”

The raised profile might be the greatest legacy Campbell and Thomas will leave behind. It seemed unlikely they could do much to build on the remarkable Final Four push, but they managed to reach the conference tournament final as juniors before collecting George Mason’s first CAA title since 2001 earlier this month.

Larranaga said this week his life had completely changed as a result of winning four straight games in March two years ago. And much of the credit for it goes to Campbell and Thomas, two longtime cornerstones.

Their departures could mark an end of an era in Fairfax. But it’s arguably more likely that their arrivals will be remembered as the start of a special time at George Mason, a stretch that produced remarkable highs even if the end for Campbell and Thomas was not what they wanted.

“They should be preseason No. 1 in our conference, and I have no doubt in my mind they’ll make it back here,” Campbell said. “It’s hard, but it has to end somewhere. We’ll move on and try to get over it.”

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