AU Fends Off Nemesis To Advance in Patriot

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

The seedings suggested a mismatch with first-place American hosting No. 8 Holy Cross in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League tournament. But recent history provided a decidedly different story line, for the visiting Crusaders had wrecked so many Eagles seasons the previous six years.

AU seemed headed for another cruel finish last night at Bender Arena when Brian Gilmore came to a timely rescue.

His three-point play with 18 seconds left capped a dizzying second half and lifted the top-seeded Eagles to a 62-60 victory, their first over the Crusaders in four postseason meetings.

To secure a semifinal home date Sunday against No. 5 seed Army, which surprised No. 4 Lehigh in overtime, the Eagles (19-11) had to overcome an 11-point first-half deficit and take their first lead on Gilmore's three-pointer with 5 1/2 minutes remaining. They had to withstand a one-point deficit with a Crusader at the free throw line and 47 seconds left. And after Gilmore's decisive play, they had to endure a final Holy Cross possession.

"We didn't really have a set play," Gilmore said of his drive. "As soon as I caught it in the high post, I saw how wide everyone was playing. . . . I was just able to get one on one and just thought I had an edge to get to the basket."

Gilmore, AU's top reserve, finished with 10 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds in just 23 minutes. The key, however, was the Eagles' overall efficiency. After intermission, they shot 54 percent, including 7 of 9 three-point attempts, and committed just one turnover to win for the eighth time in nine games.

Junior guards Derrick Mercer (16 points) and Garrison Carr (14) combined for 4 of 4 three-pointers in the second half to help offset 6-foot-11 Tim Clifford's 23 points and Colin Cunningham's 20 for the Crusaders (15-14).

Holy Cross had beaten the Eagles in the 2002 and '03 championship games as well as in last year's semifinals en route to another Patriot title. They won at Bender in January, though AU answered by winning in Worcester, Mass., 11 days later to end an eight-game losing streak in the series.

From the outset, the noisy crowd knew this game was going to be trouble.

The Crusaders scored on their first four possessions and used an extended zone to disrupt AU. Carr, who this year set a single-season league record for three-pointers, needed more than 11 minutes to launch his first shot. Holy Cross's lead grew to 26-15 before the Eagles rallied to within six at halftime.

Although the Eagles drew even on three-pointers by Carr and Bryce Simon at the start of the half, they were unable to seize the lead until the late stages.

"It was just so difficult to get over that hump," Mercer said.

The Crusaders went back ahead, 58-56, with 2 minutes 6 seconds to play on Kyle Cruze's free throws, but Simon responded with a three-pointer. After Cunningham hit two free throws and Mercer missed in the lane, Pat Doherty, an 80 percent free throw shooter, missed a pair with 47 seconds left, setting the stage for Gilmore.

"Brian recognized that he had a wide lane to the basket," Eagles Coach Jeff Jones said. "He did the right thing."

On the final possession, the Eagles slapped the ball out of bounds with 1.3 seconds to go and prevented Cunningham from shooting before time expired.

"We didn't want to have another episode like the last time we played here," said Carr, referring to the Crusaders' two-point win this year. "We didn't want to feel that pain anymore, so everyone played the toughest defense they could play."

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