American Falls to Villanova in First-Round Game of Men's Tournament

American lets a 14-point advantage slip away as the 14th-seeded Eagles falter down the stretch and lose to Villanova, 80-67.
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, March 19 -- American University's startling lead against Villanova grew to 10 points by halftime and 14 early in the second half of what was supposed to be another one-sided NCAA tournament first-round game Thursday evening.

Garrison Carr was stroking three-pointers as part of a spectacular shooting display by the 14th-seeded Eagles, and AU's defense was thoroughly frustrating the third-seeded Wildcats. But like so many low seeds that can't maintain second-half leads against teams from power conferences, the Eagles faded in the final 10 minutes and dropped an 80-67 decision at sold-out Wachovia Center.

"It's a great feeling, but you've got to figure they are going to make a run," AU forward Brian Gilmore said. "You know it's coming. We tried to sustain our lead as long as possible, but as much as they were attacking, it made it awfully tough on us."

The Eagles (24-8) were done in by Silver Spring natives Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham, who had 25 points apiece and combined to make 18 of 26 field goal attempts. After a scorching start, AU lost its shooting touch and was outscored 49-26 in the second half.

The Wildcats (27-7) made 26 of 29 free throws, 24 of 26 in the second half, in ending the Eagles' winning streak at 13 and thwarting AU's attempt to upset a Big East opponent for the first time since shocking Patrick Ewing and Georgetown at Capital Centre in 1982-83.

"Villanova just wore us down -- it's as simple as that," Eagles Coach Jeff Jones said. "We just didn't have an answer."

The final stretch of the game was eerily similar to AU's NCAA tournament debut last year in Birmingham, a 15-point loss to second-seeded Tennessee in which the Eagles trailed by one with about five minutes remaining before faltering offensively and letting a physically superior opponent score at will. Unlike that game, however, AU actually surged to a double-digit lead against the Wildcats and entertained thoughts of becoming just the 16th No. 14 seed to win a first-round game since 1985.

"In the end, we just had bigger, better, stronger athletes," Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. "But they were probably better prepared and executed a little bit better."

Carr, part of a seven-player senior class that led the Eagles to two tournament appearances after a 40-year absence, made six three-pointers and had 22 points but was sidelined by foul trouble when the Wildcats made their decisive run.

Senior point guard Derrick Mercer had 13 of his 17 points in the first half and Gilmore added 16 for AU, which made 2 of 16 three-pointers in the second half after hitting 8 of 15 before halftime.

Twenty minutes before tip-off, District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, wearing the same blue AU jacket that he donned courtside at Bender Arena last Friday for the Patriot League final, led the cheers for the Eagles' supporters, estimated at almost 700.

As expected, most of the 20,000-plus in attendance supported Villanova, whose campus is about 20 miles away, but the Eagles made it feel like a true neutral site by staying close at the start and gradually building the lead in front of a stunned audience.

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