By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008
American University -- its long-suffering fans and alumni, its current and former players and illustrious coaches -- had watched this same fitful situation unfold countless times during 41 years of Division I basketball, a tense game that would come with an inevitably cruel ending. Three times this decade the Eagles had fallen one victory short of a Patriot League title and a maiden trip to the NCAA tournament.
And yesterday at crazed Bender Arena, another sad finish was brewing.
But this time, with the Eagles locked in a tight match with Colgate and just a few minutes remaining, it was American that made critical shots and key defensive plays. It was American that converted free throws and held its composure. And when the final buzzer sounded, marking the end of a 52-46 victory before 3,044 spectators, it was American players being embraced by onrushing students and celebrating a league championship.
"They've waited so long and endured a lot of disappointments," Coach Jeff Jones said of the AU community. "So it's great to know they can watch [the NCAA pairings] on Sunday and feel a special sense of pride that AU for the first time is going to be included."
The top-seeded Eagles (21-11) will take their turn in the national spotlight because tournament MVP Garrison Carr scored 17 points and Brian Gilmore came off the bench to add 11 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. They are moving on because, despite shooting 24 percent in the second half and trailing by a point with about 2 1/2 minutes remaining, they scored seven consecutive points to beat the third-seeded Raiders (18-14) for the eighth consecutive time.
Kyle Roemer's three-pointer gave Colgate a 46-45 lead, but Jordan Nichols converted a layup with about two minutes left and then blocked Daniel Waddy's shot. AU's Derrick Mercer (1 of 10 from the field, 2 of 6 from the free throw line) missed two foul shots, but AU forced Waddy into another miss.
Gilmore followed with two free throws for a three-point advantage and then slapped the ball from Alex Woodhouse, triggering a wild pileup and an alternate possession that went in AU's favor.
"I lost the ball and it turned into football," said Woodhouse, a Hayfield High graduate who had 8 points, 16 rebounds and 4 blocks.
Mercer atoned for his shooting woes by making two free throws with 18 seconds left. Another Colgate miss, another Gilmore free throw and the celebration was underway.
"It didn't really faze me," Carr said of Roemer's go-ahead three-pointer. "I knew we still had points left in us. I knew we were going to be able stop them come crunch time, I just had that hunch inside of me. We just ran back downcourt as if it was the first shot of the game and had no significance."
Both Jones and Colgate Coach Emmett Davis noted the intangibles in the final six minutes that turned the game in AU's favor -- a pair of desperation saves on the end line by Gilmore, an offensive rebound by Nichols off an air ball that resulted in a layup, as well as Nichols's block and Gilmore's pressure on Woodhouse.
"We did get stagnant and that's why the garbage baskets, the putback baskets, were so big for us," Jones said. "When you are shooting as poorly as we were and struggling to find a rhythm as much as we were, you need extra opportunities."
The game started in a ragged manner before the Eagles bolted to a seven-point lead midway through the first half. But the Raiders, who had won their previous six games and were pursuing their first title since 1996, were within 27-24 at the break. Both teams labored in the second half as well, and the Eagles needed almost six minutes to make their first field goal, a three-pointer by Carr for a 32-30 lead.
Colgate, however, settled into a comfortable offense and, at the other end, disrupted the Eagles with a mix of zone and man-to-man defense. A four-point AU lead turned into a four-point deficit with nine minutes left thanks to eight points from Roemer (17 points) and Kendall Jones (13).
"When we got up four, our guys were feeling pretty good at that point because there hadn't been anything like that in the game," Davis said. "It had been so tight the whole way."
Carr answered with a three-pointer and, before long, the teams were even at 43 with about three minutes left -- the point where AU has so often faltered over the years.
On this evening, however, the Eagles made all the right moves.
"It was neat looking up at the scoreboard knowing that we were going to win the game and seeing how happy the fans were -- everyone was on their feet," Gilmore said. "It was almost surreal."