Eagles Get Close, But Lose in Final

Holy Cross forward Briana McFadden, right, collides with American guard Talicia Jacks during Wednesday's Patriot League tournament title game.
Holy Cross forward Briana McFadden, right, collides with American guard Talicia Jacks during Wednesday's Patriot League tournament title game. (Greg M. Cooper - AP)
By Kathy Orton
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 8, 2007

WORCESTER, Mass., March 7 -- The American University women's basketball team was on the brink of making school history Wednesday before letting it slip away. And after the game was over, all the Eagles could think about was how close they had come.

Trying to become the first basketball team, men's or women's, in school history to qualify for the NCAA tournament, fourth-seeded American came up short in the championship game of the Patriot League tournament, falling to No. 3 seed Holy Cross, 56-48, before 1,466 fans at Hart Center. The Crusaders, who won their 11th Patriot League tournament title, earned their 12th trip to the NCAA tournament.

"I don't think there are any words to describe it," said Eagles guard Nicole Ryan, who was selected to the all-tournament team. "For right now, there is no way to make yourself feel better. You're right there. It's every athlete's dream, and you come up short."

When it mattered most, Holy Cross (15-17) got its shots to fall, and American didn't. The Crusaders made seven of their eight three-point attempts after halftime while the Eagles (13-19) made only one field goal the final six minutes of the game.

We "wanted [to win] incredibly badly," American Coach Melissa McFerrin said. "If wanting to win too badly is a crime, then I'll have five or 12 or 19 of those kids on our team. . . . I thought we got a little tight when Holy Cross hit the big three and took the lead, and we wanted to make it all back at once and we had plenty of time."

Even though it was the less tournament-tested team and was playing on Holy Cross's home court -- where the Crusaders are 20-1 in Patriot League tournament games -- American seemed more poised early. The Eagles' full-court pressure defense rattled Holy Cross's freshman guards and led to many of the Crusaders' 13 first-half turnovers. American capitalized on their sloppiness to build a 12-point lead and closed out the half on a 19-4 run.

Brianna McFadden, a freshman guard out of Good Counsel High School, endured the brunt of the Eagles' defense.

"The first half, they were just bringing it at us, and we were having a little bit of trouble with it," McFadden said. "But going into halftime, we readjusted and got a new strategy."

The game turned early in the second half when Bethany O'Dell, the Patriot League rookie of the year and tournament most valuable player, sank a three-pointer to cut American's lead to 29-22. McFadden, who was chosen to the all-tournament team, then added back-to-back threes, and the Holy Cross comeback had begun.

O'Dell "hits the first three, and Bri hits the second three, and that got the crowd back into it," Holy Cross Coach Bill Gibbons said.

The Crusaders' three-point barrage began a 14-4 run that tied the score at 33. By the time O'Dell sank a three-pointer to put Holy Cross up 38-36, the Crusaders clearly had momentum on their side.

American, meantime, was struggling offensively. The Eagles' shots were bouncing off the rim rather than falling through the net. They made only one field goal -- a three-pointer by Ryan -- in the final 6 minutes 19 seconds. The rest of their points came at the free throw line.

"Offensively, it was a little bit of lack of execution down the stretch," said American guard Liz Hayes, who scored 10 of her 14 points in the first half and was also an all-tournament selection. "Our shots weren't falling tonight. When they do fall, that gets a lot more momentum going and obviously we're a lot more successful."

The Eagles left hoping to build upon the close call against one of the perennial powers of the Patriot League.

"We'll learn from this," McFerrin said. "I'm really proud of our kids. I know they're hurt and they're disappointed right now. This is something that we can learn from."

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