American's Dream Comes True
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Needing badly to make a free throw, or any shot for that matter, Derrick Mercer stared more at history than at the rim with 19 seconds left. Listed generously at 5 feet 9, American University's pint-size guard had struggled to find his shooting range and his confidence for 40 minutes -- much like the Eagles struggled to find their path to the NCAA Division I basketball tournament for 41 years.
He stepped to the foul line against Colgate in the Patriot League tournament championship game having not made a single free throw in four tries and having missed 9 of 10 shots from the field. When Mercer breathed deeply, dribbled and released the basketball, he said he knew of only one certainty:
"I was thinking, 'Make these two and we'll be dancing,' " he said.
And dance they finally will.
Mercer's two free throws helped seal a 52-46 victory and put American into the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament for the first time in the program's 82-year history. Even though students were on spring break, a wave of red, white and blue stormed the Bender Arena court after the final buzzer and bedlam in Spring Valley ensued.
"The last couple years growing up, you watched Selection Sunday and you see all the teams waiting for the names to be called," said Brian Gilmore, the junior forward who garnered the most important rebounds and critical foul shots in the final minutes of AU's pulsating victory. "Knowing we will have an opportunity to play a game in the tournament is unbelievable for us."
Before 3,044 souls stuffed into a bandbox of an on-campus arena -- the Eagles scored the last seven points of a no-flow game that featured eight ties and 12 lead changes. Colgate's Kyle Roemer and Kendall Chones, the burly son of former NBA player Jim Chones, nearly spoiled the long-awaited moment. The two Raiders combined for 30 of their team's 46 points. When Roemer's rainbow three-pointer from the left wing with 2 minutes 24 seconds remaining gave Colgate the lead, much of the school's fans and former players fell silent and felt a familiar queasiness.
Three previous times since 2002, American had also been one victory away from reaching the tournament. It lost each time. Not even some of the game's most prominent coaches, all of whom worked at American before taking over big-time programs, could guide the Eagles to "the Big Dance," as the tournament is known. Not Gary Williams, Tom Young or Tom Davis, his assistant at the time, or even Ed Tapscott, the longtime NBA executive and now Wizards assistant, whose 1990 AU team was the last of the 20-win outfits before this season.
The Eagles lost in a double-overtime thriller to Richmond on a wild shot at the buzzer in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals that season. In 1982, Williams's 21-win Eagles were knocked off in overtime of the East Coast Conference championship.
"No one knows how long we waited unless you're from here or you played here," said Wilbur Thomas, a former star player at American.
In 2002, Holy Cross crushed American's hopes in the final seconds at a disbelieving Bender. The school that traced its history to a letter written by George Washington, in which he expressed a desire for a "national university" to be located in the nation's capital, could boast of diplomats and a first-rate law school but not of participating in America's signature college sporting event.
Meantime, four of the other Division I schools in the immediate area -- Maryland, Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason -- had combined for 60 tournament appearances next to American's none.