Defending Patriot League Champion American University Faces Holy Cross, Lofty Expectations in Today's Title Game

Garrison Carr, right, and the defending league champion Eagles have won 18 of their past 19 games.
Garrison Carr, right, and the defending league champion Eagles have won 18 of their past 19 games. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

For the American University men's basketball team, expectations to return to the NCAA tournament have been in place since the moment the Bender Arena locker room door swung open for preseason practice last fall. With the return of their top four scorers, a pair of dynamic guards and seven seniors, the Eagles were almost uniformly anointed the Patriot League favorites.

A program that, until last spring, had never been to the NCAA tournament was now being projected to breeze to another league title.

But along the way to this afternoon's championship game against visiting Holy Cross, the Eagles stumbled to four straight early-season losses. They seem fatigued by a seemingly endless string of nonconference road games and failed to regain the rhythm and style that enhanced last season's joy ride.

"Part of our issues early had to deal with worrying about expectations, whether they were our own expectations, our families' or our friends'," American Coach Jeff Jones said this week. "There were several times where I lit them up pretty good, telling them, basically: 'Who the hell do you think you are? Last year was great. That has got nothing to do with what we're doing now.'

"At some point, they finally understood."

Since losing at Maryland on Dec. 22, dropping their record to 5-6, the top-seeded Eagles (23-7) have won 18 of 19. The lone loss came almost seven weeks ago at Holy Cross and their 12-game winning streak is second longest in the country behind Memphis. They have not lost at home since Dec. 1 to Mount St. Mary's -- an 11-game streak -- and have won 16 in a row against visiting league opponents dating from last season.

But such superlatives had been forecasted since the season started, leaving the Eagles still another step from truly fulfilling expectations.

Comparing the past two tournament drives, senior forward Jordan Nichols said: "This year there is pressure -- we are expected to win, and it would be a letdown if we don't -- whereas last year there was just the excitement to prove to ourselves that we could do it."

Although the heavily favored Eagles never believed they would romp to the league final, they didn't think they would sputter in the manner they have either. After a spotty performance against Lafayette in the quarterfinals, American found itself with a five-point deficit in Sunday's semifinal against Army and needed a late surge and Brian Gilmore's free throw with 3.6 seconds left to earn a 61-60 victory against a team it had dominated in two regular season meetings.

The Eagles admitted afterward that they played not to lose -- perhaps a symptom of a squad feeling the weight of expectations.

"We've addressed it and they understand," Jones said. "I'm not really concerned about it. We are going to be excited to play Holy Cross. Heck, in the regular season, our guys were bouncing all over the place to play them. You've got to get through those types of things, like against Army. We were fortunate we were able to dodge the bullet, but I don't see any cause for alarm."

The way the Eagles handled adversity last weekend, Jones said, was a product of their experience.

"When things didn't go well," he said, "we didn't come apart at the seams. We hung in there."

Despite its favored status, American will have to accomplish something it has never done: defeat Holy Cross in the late stages of the league tournament. The second-seeded Crusaders (18-13) won the title at Bender in 2002, defeated the Eagles in Worcester, Mass., in the final the subsequent year and ousted visiting AU in the 2007 semifinals. In last year's first round, despite being the No. 1 seed, the Eagles struggled to a two-point victory over the eighth-seeded Crusaders.

Holy Cross has won nine of the past 12 meetings.

"We have an understanding of what we are walking into," said Nichols, a DeMatha High graduate from Glenn Dale. "We know how intense it is going to be, but it's definitely a different experience this year. I don't think it gets any easier. I would say I am probably more anxious than last year, but it's definitely going to be fun."

AU Notes: A pep rally will begin at 2:30 p.m. outside the arena lobby with free food, music and face-painting and sign-making stations. . . .

Guard Garrison Carr skipped one practice this week because of a sore ankle but is expected to start.

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