By John Feinstein
Saturday, March 15, 2008
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.
When Kendall Chones bulled inside with 9 minutes 20 seconds to go and put Colgate ahead 38-34, the tension among the 3,044 packed into the gym was palpable. They had not come to see history repeated. On the most critical possession of the season, Carr managed to shake loose for a second on the left side of the zone and made a three-point shot to cut the lead to 38-37 and bring the crowd back into the game.
"We just lost him for a second," Davis said. "That's what's uncanny about him. You chase him, you double him, you don't think he can get an open look and he finds a way. He's a terrific player."
Carr was the tournament MVP but he had plenty of help. Jordan Nichols blocked a critical shot and made a layup on a pretty pass from Frank Borden (playing for the injured Bryce Simon) to put AU up for good, 47-46, with 1:51 left. Brian Gilmore made two critical free throws to push the lead to three and then stripped Alex Woodhouse of the ball with 20 seconds to go and Colgate trying to free Kyle Roemer for a tying three-point shot. And then, after a miserable day, Mercer made the two clinching free throws after Colgate fouled him intentionally because he hadn't come close the first four times he went to the line.
It was an emotional day for the players, for the students -- who streamed back to campus early from spring break -- and for all the alums who came back. But it was most emotional for the coach who was fired by his alma mater 10 years ago and got a chance at a school that is light years away from the ACC in money, power, prestige and -- most notably -- NCAA bids.
When Jones played at Virginia, Holland never worried about his ability to handle pressure or to control his emotions in tight moments. "JJ," he would say, "is a rock."
On the surface, Jones was the consistent guard who made big shots and good decisions and helped make U-Va. a perennial top 10 team. Jones wasn't quite the rock Holland thought, however. His parents were going through a divorce that deeply affected him. He would go through the same feelings again during his own divorce while coaching at U-Va. But he rebuilt his life in Northwest Washington, only two hours from his three children still living in Charlottesville, and happily remarried. There had been glory years at AU in the early 1960s in Division II; then in the early '70s with Kermit Washington, and later with coaches such as Tom Young, Jim Lynam, Gary Williams and Ed Tapscott. But there had never been a trip to the NCAA tournament, just a lot of close calls, including three straight years from 2002 through 2004.
AU lost four starters off last season's team and was picked to finish fifth in the league. Jones saw some encouraging signs in preseason that made him hope this team was better than that. Carr, who had averaged 3.8 points per game as a sophomore, flashed the potential to be a big-time scorer. Gilmore was finally healthy and Mercer, now a junior, was a confident leader at the point.
They beat Maryland at Comcast Center -- "the Maryland game gave me a clue," he said, "because it was the first time we really played for 40 minutes" -- and then, after a wobbly 3-3 start in the league, took off. They finished 10-4 to earn the first seed and home court for yesterday's game.
That may have been the difference. "It was a great game, a great atmosphere, a great crowd," Roemer said. "It came down to a couple of plays. And they made the plays."
Last night, when the building finally cleared, Jones, his family and a few close friends went to dinner to celebrate.
"Same place we went after we lost to Holy Cross in '02," he said. "I have a feeling I'll enjoy this dinner a lot more than that one."
He was smiling now, a winner's happy smile. But the tears an hour earlier told the real story for a redeemed coach and for a school finally rewarded.