By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
American Coach Jeff Jones, who sobbed on national television after the victory, will return to the tournament for the first time since 1997 with Virginia, where he played with Ralph Sampson and later coached the Cavaliers until he was relieved of his duties in 1998.
"I missed it," Jones said. "I've had close friends and colleagues, say, 'You're spoiled.' But we went to the tournament five of the first six years at Virginia. It's what I was accustomed to. The fact that we are going is really special."
Wil Jones, one of only two American players to have his jersey retired by the school, watched the game from Virginia Beach. He said he had been encouraged before the season about the team's hopes. "I said to Jeff Jones, 'I really like those two little small guys,' " he said, referring to tournament most valuable player Garrison Carr and Mercer. "We've waited so long to get to the tournament, I thought those were the kind of players that could get us there."
"So all I have to say is: Hooray for the little guys."
This win was the greatest sporting achievement for AU since 1985, when its soccer team advanced to the national title game against perennial powerhouse UCLA. But the Eagles lost in eight -- yes, eight -- overtimes.
Before the victory, American was one of 33 Division I schools whose men's and women's basketball programs both had failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. AU fielded its first men's team in 1926 and began competing in Division I in 1967. Eighty-two seasons after the Eagles began, 41 seasons after they were eligible for the tournament, the drought ended.
"There's certainly not another trip to the NCAA tournament that feels better," Jones said after he had snipped the last piece of net from the rim and held it aloft to cheers. "This is pretty damn good."