The Wait Is Lifted
Jeff Jones couldn't stop the tears. He was trying but he couldn't do it. He sat slumped on his team's bench, completely exhausted while the wildest celebration in the history of American University was going on around him in the maelstrom that was Bender Arena.
Every few seconds someone stopped to shake his hand, to tap him on the shoulder, to pat him on the back. Every one of them said the same thing: "Thank you."
American has played basketball for 41 years in Division I, but it wasn't until yesterday at 6:40 p.m., after a 52-46 victory against Colgate, that the moment awaited by everyone connected to the school finally arrived. With the victory, the Eagles became the Patriot League champions and the league's representative in the NCAA tournament.
Forty-one years. That's a long time to wait for anything.
The last time Jones coached in the NCAAs was 1997 when he was 36 and had taken Virginia five times in eight years. The Cavaliers struggled through the winter of that final season, knowing that their coach's job might hang in the balance.
"We were on the bubble the whole season," he remembered yesterday before the championship game. "I was pretty drained when we finally got in that year, too."
But not like this. There's no bubble in the Patriot League. Three times since Jones became the coach eight years ago, American reached the championship game. Three times, the Eagles lost, most memorably on this court six years ago to Holy Cross when a late shot by Steven Miles that could have won the game hit the side of the backboard in the closing seconds.
As the thank-yous poured down on him Jones sat holding the red towel that he coughs into during games, dabbing his eyes so the tears wouldn't roll down his cheeks. "This may be the best moment I've ever had," he finally said. "It's been a long time coming."
He meant for the school, but he also meant for himself. Jones played at Virginia for four years and went to two NCAA tournaments and one Final Four. He was an assistant coach under Terry Holland for eight years and went to six more tournaments and another Final Four. Then came five more trips in his first seven years as the head coach at his alma mater. That's 13 tournaments in 19 years.
"I probably took a lot of it for granted," he said, sitting in the hallway outside his team's locker room an hour before tip-off. "I can honestly say I'm as nervous right now as I've ever been before a game."
More nervous than before Virginia played Arkansas in 1995 for a trip to the Final Four? He thought about it for a moment. "Yes," he said. "I know what this means to so, so many people."
Colgate had won six straight games and came in well prepared, as often happens when you've faced a team twice. Coach Emmett Davis kept switching defenses, constantly keeping a chaser on Garrison Carr to make it hard for him to find open shots and making it difficult for point guard Derrick Mercer to get in the lane where he does his best work.