This Time, Underdog GMU Is Overwhelmed

The hopes of another magical NCAA tournament ride for George Mason unravel quickly and harshly in an opening-round loss to fifth-seeded Notre Dame.
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008

DENVER, March 20 -- There will be no miracles for George Mason this year, no "Livin' on a Prayer" blaring its way into a Final Four arena, no Jim Larranaga whistling his team past powerhouses, no impromptu 10,000-fan gatherings at Patriot Center.

The hopes of another magical NCAA tournament ride for George Mason unraveled quickly and harshly Thursday night in a 68-50 loss in the first round to fifth-seeded Notre Dame at Pepsi Center. The 12th-seeded Patriots' promising return to the tournament became a brief and painful stay, four games shorter than their storied Final Four run in 2006.

No one realistically could have expected the Patriots to duplicate what they accomplished then. The team itself made having as much fun as possible its primary goal upon reaching the tournament. And though little, if anything, could have been enjoyable for George Mason after the tip-off, the loss gave the Patriots a fresh perspective on their Final Four march.

"I didn't really appreciate it until today," said senior point guard Folarin Campbell, one of two remaining starters from the Final Four squad. "Every team in the NCAA tournament is a great team. We played against a great team today. Just to know what we did two years ago, I look back at that and just see how remarkable that run was."

Campbell finished his career on a bitter note. He had scored at least 15 points in George Mason's previous 17 games, but Notre Dame's lanky guards held him to four points. Campbell did not score in the first half, missing all six of his attempts, and shot 1 of 12 for the game.

"Every shot I shot was contested," Campbell said. "They just played tremendous defense."

George Mason's defense yielded an average of 50.7 points in its three Colonial Athletic Association tournament victories. But Notre Dame's balanced offense shredded the Patriots. Three Fighting Irish players scored in double figures, led by 18 from Big East player of the year Luke Harangody, and Notre Dame shot 46 percent.

George Mason arrived here intent on establishing its own identity. Players scoffed at the idea of superstitions carried over from 2006. That group requested dinners on the road at Outback; this team ate at Applebee's.

"That was then," Larranaga said Wednesday evening. "This is now."

The present, however, brought a harsh reality. From even before the game, everything seemed aligned against the Patriots. During pregame introductions, the public-address announcer called out "Jim Larranaga, Coach of the George Mason Eagles."

The Patriots' opponent was even less inviting. Notre Dame won its first 24 games this season on Harangody's inside brawn and a collection of deadeye shooters. The Fighting Irish converted a higher percentage of three-pointers than any other team remaining in the tournament and averaged more assists per game than any team in the country.

Notre Dame (25-7) separated from the Patriots with an early 17-0 run, the final 12 points coming when Rob Kurz, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller took turns catching skip passes and firing from beyond the three-point arc.

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