By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010; D06
BETHELHEM, PA. -- Jeff Jones set the agenda minutes after fourth-seeded American's 79-57 loss at top-seeded Lehigh in the Patriot League semifinals on Sunday when the Eagles' coach told his team to enjoy the upcoming break from the season's conclusion, but understand what awaits this offseason.
"In all of my years as a head coach," said Jones, who coached eight years at Virginia and has been at American for 10, "this will be by far the hardest offseason of any team."
Jones said the players must "face adversity" and "grow up physically and mentally."
This conclusion was reached after American (11-20) suffered its first 20-loss season since 2000-01. It was expected to be a rebuilding year after losing all five starters and eight letter winners from a team that threatened Villanova in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament.
The Eagles were the Patriot League's representative in the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons. Sunday, they encountered the team that will likely represent the league this season.
"Bottom line," Jones said, "they were just too good."
Lehigh (21-10) was led by C.J. McCollum, a freshman who won the league's player of the year and rookie of the year. He scored 22 points and hit all eight of his free throws. He was one of four Mountain Hawks to score in double figures, as the conference's highest-scoring team connected on 61.5 percent of its three-pointers and did not allow American to slow the pace of the game.
Lehigh opened the game with an 11-0 run before the Eagles scored eight consecutive points to cut into the Mountain Hawks' lead. At no point, though, could American tie the score or take the lead.
The best opportunity came in the first half when McCollum went to the bench while the Mountain Hawks nursed a three-point lead. McCollum remained sidelined for 3 minutes 24 seconds, during which Lehigh actually extended the lead to five points instead of American making a run.
In two previous meetings, American lost to Lehigh by 11 and 12 points. Sunday, the Mountain Hawks appeared motivated by the prospects of their postseason fate. After a shot by McCollum gave them an 18-point lead at the end of the first half, the Mountain Hawks' players celebrated on their way to the locker room about 20 minutes that went as well as they could have hoped.
"To be honest, I think we had several guys that didn't handle this stage -- didn't handle tournament basketball -- the way we would have liked, the way we would have needed them to," Jones said. "They smelled blood, and they came right at us."
The Eagles finished the game shooting 40 percent, while committing 16 turnovers and appearing tentative in critical situations. They were led by sophomore forward Stephen Lumpkins, who scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds. First-team all-league forward Vlad Moldoveanu scored only two points in 19 minutes while dealing with foul trouble.
"We came into the game trying to win the game; we weren't by any means coming in just trying to compete," said junior Nick Hendra, who scored 11 points. "We take a lot of things from this game into the postseason. But we're definitely going to work as hard as possible -- as hard as any one of us has worked before -- to get ready for the next season."
American returns all but one player from its roster and every starter for next season. Before that happens, they face the longest offseason in the careers of those players -- and according to Jones, one that is not for the "faint of heart."