For the first time in five seasons, American will play in the Patriot League championship game.
The Eagles, picked ninth in the preseason, got there on Saturday evening by beating Holy Cross, 57-46, at Bender Arena for two reasons: a walk-on and a zone.
The walk-on was Charlie Jones, a babyfaced — to put it mildly — freshman whom Coach Mike Brennan put into the game early in the second half with his offense sputtering and, in essence, no place else to turn.
The zone was the defense that Brennan switched to with 15 minutes 27 seconds to play and Holy Cross leading 39-29. The Crusaders’ little guards had consistently gotten into the lane and so had forward Malcolm Miller. If the Eagles helped, they kicked the ball to open shooters. At that point in the game, Holy Cross had made 5 of 7 three-point shots and was shooting 53 percent overall.
Jones had come in for Kyle Kager just prior to the TV timeout that came right after Anthony Thompson was fouled by Darius Gardner while making a three-pointer to create that 10-point lead. Jones hadn’t played a minute until coming in with 16:23 left. The zone hadn’t been seen all night either.
“Charlie’s amazing,” Brennan said afterward. “Some nights he plays zero minutes and some nights he wins the game for us. He just does whatever we ask of him.”
Jones played at Mount St. Joseph’s in Baltimore and Brennan had seen him play while recruiting someone else as a Georgetown assistant. That other player — Phil Booth — is going to Villanova next season, but Brennan’s time watching his team play proved worthwhile.
“I’d actually visited here while Coach [Jeff] Jones and his staff were still here,” Jones said. “I liked the school but when they left I was kind of in limbo, not really sure what to do. I had D-II and D-III offers so I thought I might end up one of those places. But the day after Coach Brennan got the job, he called me. I remember he said he wanted to build a program like Davidson — a good academic school that would have a chance to go to the NCAA’s every year. I liked the way that sounded.”
So, even without a scholarship, he decided to come to American last fall. Brennan and his teammates are very glad he did.
When Jones came into the game, AU was struggling to make shots. John Schoof, the team’s third-leading scorer, hadn’t scored and leading scorer Jesse Reed was 3 of 10. Marko Vasic, normally Brennan’s go-to-guy off the bench in that situation, had looked lost in the first half. So in came Jones.
The first time he touched the ball on the left wing, Holy Cross gave him space. That made sense because he had made five three-point shots all season. The sixth one of the season made it 39-32 with 13:35 left to play and was the start of an extraordinary 20-2 run by the Eagles. Jones’s energy at both ends of the floor seemed to spark the entire team. Reed warmed up — he finished with 18 points — and Gardner, who is without question this team’s most important player night in and night out, began to make things happen, too.
But it was Jones who seemed to be everywhere. It was a little bit like the old Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the rabbit plays all nine positions on the baseball field. That was Jones — five points, four rebounds, two steals and a block in the game’s last 16 minutes. His hands seemed to be reaching into the lane every time a Crusader went there, and he was on the floor whenever there was a loose ball — sometimes when there wasn’t one.
“He’s just a ball hawk,” said Tony Wroblicky, the only senior on this team, which is now 19-12 in Brennan’s first year. “We call him the ‘Energizer Bunny’ because he’s all over the place all the time. Tonight was a perfect example of that.”
If Jones deserved a game ball, so did the zone. Once the Eagles went to it, they shut down Holy Cross completely. The Crusaders scored 39 points in just less than 25 minutes against the man-to-man. They scored seven points in a little more than 15 minutes against the zone.
“I didn’t really want to go to it,” Brennan said. “But we were having a hard time guarding them, the little guards [Thompson and Justin Burrell] but more than anything Miller. He’s just hard to guard. We really didn’t have any choice.”
Good defense often leads to good offense. Holy Cross had three turnovers in the first half, nine in the second. Many of those turnovers led to runouts that allowed AU more open shots.
The way the Eagles took the lead pretty much summed up the turnaround. After Gardner had been fouled going to the basket off a steal with 7:47 left, he made the first of two free throws to cut the Holy Cross lead to 41-40. He missed the second one but Jones somehow got the rebound and flipped the ball back to an open Reed, who drained a three to make it 43-41. No one in the building knew it at that moment, but the game was over. There was only 1:47 left when Dave Dudzinski scored to break the Holy Cross drought and by then the lead was 49-43.
“When I get an offensive rebound, the first thing I think about is to find a shooter,” Jones said. “I saw Jesse open and just got him the ball. He did the rest.”
When Brennan was recruiting Booth a year ago, Mount St. Joseph’s Coach Pat Clatchey asked him to keep his ears open in case a good Division I academic school might have some interest in Jones.
“When I got the job I knew Jeff and his guys had him on campus,” Brennan said. “I knew he was a great student and I liked the way he just ran around all the time. That’s why I called him.”
As it turned out, it was an important phone call. Jones’s minutes have ranged from zero to 28 during the course of the season. Saturday, he played the most important 16 minutes to date in his brief college career.
“I love to get out and work with Pee-wee [everyone calls the 5-foot-9 Gardner “Pee-wee”] because he just never stops,” Jones said. “He never gives up, never slows down. I figure if someone like him can do that, I should be able to do that, too.”
He smiled. “We always say to one another, ‘We’re never tired.’ ”
Saturday, Jones gave AU exactly the kind of jump-start it had to have to keep its season alive. Now it’s on to Boston on Wednesday for the conference championship game against Boston University. The five iron-man starters — four played 40 minutes against Holy Cross — will be there. Their secret weapons will be there, too: the walk-on and the zone.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.