AU basketball in NCAA tournament: ‘Pee Wee’ Gardner has come up big for the Eagles

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether it is more likely that American will upset Wisconsin in the first round or if George Washington could advance to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

The nickname was bestowed upon Darius Gardner in 10th grade when he played AAU basketball in Houston.

“I was the youngest guy on the team and the shortest guy on the team,” American University’s 5-foot-9 junior point guard recalled this week. “One of the older guys said, ‘You are going to be Pee Wee.’ ”

And thus began Pee Wee’s big adventure, from elite amateur and high school programs to Stephen F. Austin for two years and then AU, where he has helped orchestrate a Patriot League championship and the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in five years. Seeded 15th in the West Region, the Eagles (20-12) will face second-seeded Wisconsin (26-7) at 12:40 p.m. Thursday in Milwaukee.

Gardner has started all 32 games and leads the team in minutes played (37.0 per game), assists (4.2) and steals (2.1). He is third in scoring (11.5) and in rebounding (3.7) despite his size. His 18 points last week helped take down Boston University on the road in the conference final and earn him the tournament MVP award.

Upon his appointment last spring, first-year Coach Mike Brennan realized he had found the leader for a team that won just 10 games in 2012-13.

“As soon as we got him on the court, how he took to coaching, how he took to leading, how he took to communicating, it was immediately apparent he was special,” the former Princeton, AU and Georgetown assistant said. “If you get a kid like that once every five or 10 years, you are lucky.”

With Gardner in command, the Eagles defied predictions of a ninth-place finish in a 10-team league. They won their first 10 conference games and finished second in the regular season before sweeping the Patriot League tournament.

“I looked at it as a new beginning,” Gardner said. “It was a challenge coming in, not knowing what was going to happen with the coaching change. But in the summer, the team really came together. That’s the biggest thing we had going for us.”

Gardner learned his craft on two Texas state championship teams at Yates High School and the Houston Hoops, an elite AAU program. At Stephen F. Austin, 140 miles northeast of home, he moved into the starting lineup during conference play of his freshman season and started every game as a sophomore, leading the Lumberjacks in assists.

But he and coach Danny Kaspar did not see eye to eye. At the time of Gardner’s departure, Kaspar told the Daily Sentinel of Nacogdoches, “He was asked to show more respect for coaches in practice and in games, if he were to stay.”

Reflecting on the parting, Gardner said: “It just wasn’t the right fit for me. Me and the coach had an agreement that leaving there was the best decision for both of us. I haven’t looked back, just forward. It has all worked out.”

Gardner said he has no lingering animosity and remains close to some former teammates. He received offers from Sun Belt programs but narrowed the list to AU and South Carolina Aiken, a Division II program.

Required to sit out one year, Gardner excelled in practice. “We tried telling everyone Pee Wee is our best player,” said Jeff Jones, the former American coach who left for Old Dominion after last season. “I would have to pull him off the court and say, ‘Chill.’ He is a defensive playmaker — he just wreaked havoc.”

This season, Gardner needed to learn Brennan’s Princeton offense, which demands constant ball movement and interchanging roles. For Gardner, that meant not only conducting play but, for instance, receiving backdoor passes from 6-10 center Tony Wroblicky. Defensively, Gardner has recorded three or more steals in 12 games.

Wroblicky, the team’s lone senior, said Gardner made a strong first impression last summer. “I could tell he was going to be an impact player. He just had a great instinct for the game. I’m bummed I can play only one year with him.”

On Sunday night, when the Eagles gathered at Mary Graydon Center for the NCAA tournament selection show, Gardner was curious to see where Stephen F. Austin landed. His former team is 31-2 with a 28-game winning streak and won the Southland Conference tournament. (The Lumberjacks, a No. 12 seed under first-year Coach Brad Underwood, ended up with fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth on Friday in San Diego.)

Asked during a media session Tuesday whether he had filled out a bracket, Gardner said he did not but his mother had. When they spoke on the phone the night before, “I told her to put AU all the way to the championship.”

As for Stephen F. Austin, “I told my mom to make sure they are in the championship against us.”

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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