American basketball jumps out to big lead and barely holds on against Army

The American men’s basketball team packed a season of highs and lows into one imbalanced afternoon Saturday at Bender Arena.

At the Eagles’ best, when they embarked on devastating runs and built a 23-point lead with 121 / 2 minutes left, they looked every bit like the gang that won its first 10 Patriot League games. At their worst, when that advantage crumbled in an outbreak of turnovers and faulty possessions, they were the team that lost its way in recent weeks.

In the end, AU’s better qualities prevailed as the Eagles escaped Army’s late pursuit for a 58-54 victory.

After the Black Knights missed a pair of potential tying three-pointers, Darius Gardner made two free throws and Jesse Reed scored in transition in the final 20 seconds.

The Eagles (16-11, 12-4), who dropped four of their previous five games, strengthened their hold on second place heading into the final two regular season outings. They have already clinched home-court advantage in the tournament quarterfinals March 5 and cling to remote hope of catching first-place Boston University (20-8, 13-2).

If they are to challenge for the title, the Eagles will have to clean up their late-game act. In those last 12-plus minutes against Army (13-14, 9-7), they made just three field goals.

“Offensively, we have to figure out what our bread and butter is and do better at it,” AU Coach Mike Brennan said. “They were pressuring and denying and playing us really hard. We should have been able to take more advantage of that by cutting and getting to the basket.”

Reed scored 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting and Tony Wroblicky had 14 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three steals for the Eagles, who led 30-16 at halftime and 47-24 in the second half.

“We lost intensity. We became lackadaisical,” Reed said. “It cost us, but we brought it back toward the end.”

The Black Knights pulled within four on Dylan Cox’s three-pointer with 1 minute 55 seconds left. After AU made 1 of 2 free throws and Army hit 2 of 4 for a 54-51 gap, the Eagles’ John Schoof missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Larry Toomey’s three-pointer was off-target with 68 seconds remaining, and after a bad AU possession, Kyle Wilson tossed up an air ball from long distance. Gardner’s free throws and Reed’s fast-break layup secured the outcome.

Wilson, Army’s leading scorer who recorded 29 in his previous game, finished with two points on 1-of-15 shooting. Mo Williams scored 14 of his team-high 18 points in the second half.

The Eagles took charge during a six-minute span of the first half. Reed and Charlie Jones made back-to-back three-pointers, Reed’s coming from well beyond the arc as the shot clock was about to expire.

Over an eight-minute period, the Black Knights committed six turnovers and missed five field goal attempts plus two free throws. Wilson ended the rut with his only successful shot.

AU began the second half with devastating precision. Wroblicky, a 6-foot-10 center, supplied Gardner and Reed for cutting layups, Schoof fired a pass to Reed under the basket for an easy finish, and Reed swished a three-pointer to stretch the lead to 40-17.

The Black Knights then took advantage of AU’s sloppiness and foul trouble for a 27-7 surge.

“It’s human nature to let up a little bit,” Wroblicky said. “They made a few shots and started feeling good about themselves. . . . Games like this, where it comes down to the wire, are very beneficial to tournament play because they are all going to come down to the wire.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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