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John Feinstein: AU Fell Just Short of the Impossible

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 John Feinstein
Friday, March 20, 2009

PHILADELPHIA

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Once the locker room door closed and American Coach Jeff Jones was alone with his basketball team for the final time in a remarkable season, he took a deep breath before he began to speak to his players.

"I knew if I went on for very long, it would get tough for me emotionally," he said, an hour after the Eagles' season had ended with an 80-67 loss to Villanova on Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament. "This group of seniors has done so much for the school and the program that there's a lot I want to say to them -- and I will. But I knew I wouldn't get through it tonight."

There was a moment early in the second half when it looked as if the dream -- a No. 14 seed out of the Patriot League upsetting a No. 3 seed out of the Big East -- was not impossible. AU had played a near-perfect first half and had scored the first two baskets of the second half to lead 45-31.

Derrick Mercer, who spent the first 20 minutes consistently breaking down Villanova's defense, came flying down the court and found Brian Gilmore, who had made three of his first four three-point attempts. Gilmore pulled up on the right wing and released a shot before any of the Wildcats could get close to him.

"I remember thinking if that goes in, the building might explode," AU senior Bryce Simon said. "I mean up 17 on a Big East team? Wow."

But the shot rimmed out, and Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, scoreless in the first half, made two free throws at the other end to cut the deficit to 12.

On the bench, even when the ball left Gilmore's hands, Jones had a coach's foreboding, not about the shot but about the way the second half had started.

"We'd made a couple of nice plays, but I could see Villanova was getting us to play more at their pace," he said. "We told the players before the game that transition baskets could be fool's gold. We couldn't go up and down with them. The up might be okay, but the down wasn't going to be good for us."

In the end, Villanova's talent simply won out. Just as Tennessee was able to wear down the Eagles a year ago, Villanova did the same thing Thursday. Even so, after the lead had disappeared and the Wildcats had gone up 62-55, AU wasn't quite finished. Garrison Carr, superb in his final college game with 22 points, went to the basket twice to cut the margin to 66-61, then had an open three-point look with 2 minutes 47 seconds left that could have cut the margin to two and made the overwhelmingly pro-Villanova crowd very nervous. But it wasn't meant to be. The shot didn't go down, and soon after, AU's season was over.

"I'm really proud of what we've accomplished the last couple of years as a group," Carr said. "But this wasn't the way we wanted it to end."


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