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Cinderella Is Missing in This Year's NCAA Tournament

American lets a 14-point advantage slip away as the 14th-seeded Eagles falter down the stretch and lose to Villanova, 80-67.

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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, March 20, 2009

PHILADELPHIA There was a moment, a three-point attempt in the air, when it looked like American University was going to be 17 points up on Villanova in the second half. In Philly. In the NCAA tournament. Goliath couldn't get little David off of him.

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It's what every kid dreams of who isn't quite good enough to be recruited by one of the glamour schools. And with all due respect to Magic and Larry, even Michael Jordan and John Wooden, it's David firing the occasional rock upside Goliath's head that more than anything has turned a college basketball tournament into a calendar-defining event in America.

Brian Gilmore's open shot was spinning toward the basket, and if it was good, Villanova would likely have had to call timeout. The people in the building from UCLA and Virginia Commonwealth and Connecticut would have gotten cozy with the notion of this being the site of the Big Upset on Day One of the 2009 NCAA tourney.

Down 17 is a long, long way back, at least psychologically. The upstart has some cushion against nerves, and the favorite, especially with the pressure of playing at home, does not. From the playgrounds to the NBA, Gilmore's three-point attempt to go up 17 is what everybody in basketball now calls "a dagger!"

But Gilmore, whose shooting helped build that 14-point lead for AU, missed that open three-point look, and when Gilmore's foul led to a pair of Villanova free throws the AU lead was only a dozen, 45-33. And a dozen points, psychologically and physically, is nothing to overcome for a team as skilled and as accustomed to playing on the big stage as Villanova is, especially with the locals recognizing a turning point when they saw one.

Sure enough, Villanova methodically chased down American and won, by a rather comfortable 13 points, no less, 80-67. Somewhat predictably, the tighter the game got the tighter the AU players got. The sure shooting, freewheeling passing, dribbling and cutting to the basket from the first half disappeared. Garrison Carr's wondrous three-pointers, the shots that had him looking like the new Stephen Curry for 20 minutes, were all short, as if he was jumping out of quicksand.

Local interests aside, American winning here Thursday night was just what the tournament needed. Just like last year, Day One of the NCAA men's basketball tournament was pretty much a "chalk" day, unless you count Maryland beating Cal as an upset, which it decidedly is not except for the seeding. Just like last year, Day One of the tourney was a snoozer, a complete and utter bore. No buzzer-beater Thursday, no overtime, no Final Four hopeful sitting on the bench crying.

What's the point of the tournament if there aren't seniors and cheerleaders sobbing every night? As theater, the NCAAs are in need of a makeover even more than the Oscars were. These kids are threatening to ruin the modern tradition of the tournament, not to mention my bracket -- which admittedly has Villanova going to the Final Four, but upsets galore as well. There's nothing more dreadful and less dramatic than a bunch of powerhouses stalking their way through the tournament.

Let's hope this ends immediately, like Friday. We need Cleveland State to beat Wake or Utah State to beat Marquette or at the very least for Temple to beat Arizona State. Of course, none of those figured to be the lock that Villanova-AU was supposed to be, right?

It wasn't that the seeding (No. 3 vs. No. 14) mandated a blowout; it's that American's Eagles had to play what amounted to a road game, before 17,146 here in Philly, where a great many NCAA tournament brackets had Villanova of the Big East advancing all the way to the Final Four after what amounted to a bye against American.

Really, the game was an afterthought for most people here. Wachovia Center was mostly empty when the two teams went through their pregame warmups. There were easily more than 5,000 unclaimed seats when the game tipped off.

The Wildcats were late-arriving, too, perhaps because the really, really big-time D.C. basketball players don't see AU as big-time college basketball. And Villanova has three D.C. locals in the starting lineup: Scottie Reynolds from Herndon and Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson from Silver Spring.

The Wildcats mostly watched the first 20 minutes as American played its brains out. The Eagles shot 48 percent, they rebounded fairly even (13-14), they protected the ball better (four turnovers to Villanova's 11), played some opportunistic defense (five steals), ran when possible and positively didn't back down. The Godfather of D.C. hoops, John Thompson, calling the action on radio at courtside, marveled at how point guard Derrick Mercer, all 5-foot-8 of him, played with a fearlessness that would have gotten him a few minutes with Thompson's Hoyas back in the day.

American led by 10 at the half.

It was the stuff that made you move forward in your seat and made you wait for halftime before going to the bathroom or the fridge.

When the Eagles stretched the lead to a dozen points, then 14 to start the half, I looked back at Kermit Washington, the former AU all-American, to see his reaction. His face said, hopeful but not confident . . . not yet. The Eagles could have used some of Washington's tenacity around the glass the second half.

American couldn't find the dagger, and the scoreboard said none of the other underdogs could either. And as a result, one game just melted into another on the first day of the tournament, a day that wasn't distinguished other than Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun missing his team's game, which he has had to do with health issues several times in the past.

Calhoun, a battler and a two-time champ as coach, will return to the tournament, we hope. If he can bring some basketball drama with him, that wouldn't be a bad thing either.


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