By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Fourteen seconds remained in the Patriot League championship game, 14 seconds until a second trip to the NCAA tournament, 14 seconds until the student body would rush the Bender Arena court again.
American University had the ball and was running out the clock on the 73-57 victory over Holy Cross yesterday, but Eagles Coach Jeff Jones had one final move to make. He called a timeout for the purpose of removing four seniors, part of a seven-man group in their final year that made program history last year with the first NCAA berth and repeated it before a capacity crowd of 3,123, including District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty at courtside.
"I wanted them to enjoy their moment," Jones said. "They deserved it."
Guard Garrison Carr was toasted for scoring 24 points and becoming AU's career leader in three-pointers after making 6 of 8. Back-court mate Derrick Mercer, the league's player of the year, was recognized for adding 13 points and five assists, forward Brian Gilmore for 18 points and seven rebounds, and forward Jordan Nichols for three blocked shots and another strong defensive effort.
After play resumed, those final seconds dissolved and senior Bryce Simon hurled the ball into the air, the top-seeded Eagles (24-7) certified their 13th consecutive victory -- the second-longest streak in the country -- and their 19th win in 20 games. They also defeated the second-seeded Crusaders (18-14) in the final for the first time in three tries.
American led by 10 at halftime and shot 70.6 percent in the second half. Still, although the advantage never dipped into single digits, there was a sense of anxiety until the final 3 1/2 minutes.
R.J. Evans, the league's rookie of the year, had 16 points and eight rebounds for the Crusaders, the only team to defeat the Eagles in conference play.
"This year, for me, it's happiness, enjoying the moment and a sense of pride and certainly mixed in with happiness for that group of seniors," Jones said. "People have been asking about pressure and expectations, but for me, last year was a hell of a lot more pressure-packed and more emotional. It was like a relief from the frustration of getting close and not doing it" after 40 years in Division I.
"It is different, but both are daggum good."
The Eagles' defense was awfully good all day. The Crusaders went without a field goal for almost eight minutes in the first half and shot 18.2 percent (4 for 22).
American then began the second half on a 17-7 run, keyed by Carr's three three-pointers in a span of 2 minutes 17 seconds and Gilmore's two mid-range shots, for a 45-25 lead.
"I was looking for a net to throw over him," Crusaders Coach Ralph Willard said of Carr, who shot 9 of 12 overall and was named the tournament's MVP for the second straight year. "We were just out of position on him so many times, and even when we went man to man, we were losing him."
The Eagles labored to get Carr the ball early in the game against the zone, but with Mercer and others beginning to penetrate, the perimeter opened. "Everything felt normal again," Carr said.
The Crusaders "had to make a decision: Are they going to stay as tough on the perimeter as they were, or are they going to defend the lane?" Jones said.
Blanketed for the first 10 minutes, Carr heated up with an 18-footer followed by a high-arcing three-pointer. Gilmore followed with an emphatic dunk over Andrew Keister, but received a technical foul for taunting the Holy Cross player on the way downcourt.
Sophomore Nick Hendra and Carr hit consecutive three-pointers. Free throw shooting kept the Crusaders within striking distance, but Simon's three-pointer provided a 28-18 halftime lead. The Eagles made 8 of 17 three-pointers overall, offsetting their 19-for-32 free throw accuracy.
After intermission, AU moved the ball effortlessly on every series, scoring off inbounds passes, in transition and, most devastating to Holy Cross, on Carr's three-pointers. He found himself wide open for his second of the half and program-record 294th of his career, then on the next possession, launched under pressure from the left corner to give the Eagles a 45-25 advantage.
The Crusaders went on a 9-1 run to pull within 12, and after watching the deficit grow to 17, scored six in a row for a 53-42 margin with 8:20 remaining. Carr broke the tension with another three-pointer, and appropriately, AU seniors accounted for the team's final 19 points.
"This year is even better because the second time around is harder," Carr said. "As juniors, it is good, but you always have another year. Now that we are seniors, we knew this was the best way to go out."