Mark Nickens, who said he was one play from playing the game of the year, still came up with a number of gems at the Palesra tonight, including a tricky layup and a pair of free throws in the overtime to help American University pull off a stunning 84-83 triumph over St. Joseph's.
Even that one play, a missed shot with time running out in regulation, was a blessing -- Dennis Ross (18 points, eight rebounds) banked in Nickens' miss with one second left to tie the game at 75 and force the overtime.
The victory assured AU of at least a tie for the East Coast Conference East Title, a first-round bye in the playoffs and a home game in the second round.
The Eagles' fifth straight victory gave them a 10-0 ECC record and a 20-4 record overall. AU plays Richmond at Fort Myer Thursday before returning here to play ECC rival Temple Saturday in the final regular-reason game of the year.
The Hawks' records are 9-2 and 19-6.
The 6-foot-4 Nickens took a back seat to his aggressive teammates during a sparkling first half in which the Eagles outrebounded the taller Hawks and took a 40-33 lead. But Nickens owned the second half. He scored 27 points en route to a career-high 33 and had eight rebounds.
Still, it took Ross' last-second shot to keep the game alive.
"I wasn't anticipating a miss, but I knew I had better get in rebounding position," said Ross, who had an easy path to the basket on his rebound shot. "No one blocked me out and I didn't have time to think about bringing the ball down and putting it back in. I just grabbed it and pushed it back up."
The Hawks, despite a starting line-up that included 6-10 Tony Costner, 6-8 Boo Williams and 6-5 Tony DiCard and John Smith, were outrebounded, 37-26. Twenty of the Eagle rebounds were on offense, and AU came up with the important rebounds in the overtime.
In the extra period, Ed Sloane scored four points but St. Joe's Lonnie McFarlan (31 points) made a basket and two free throws to tie the score at 79 with 2:21 to play.
The Eagles then went to a spread. They worked almost a minute off the clock before Nickens saw an opening and knifed his way around Costner to score on a bank with 1:27 left.
"I saw Costner standing there and I almost lost the ball on the dribble," Nickens said. "When I got complete control, I still had to double pump to get it off the glass."
The Hawks then got the ball inside to Costner, who threw up a half-hook jumper that bounced off the front of the rim. Nickens stretched his wiry frame over several bodies, including Costner's, to get the rebound with 28 seconds left. The AU guard was fouled and sank both ends of the one and one foul situation to give the Eagles and 83-79 lead with 16 seconds to play.
Billy Mitchell, who, like McFarlan, turned in a sparkling performance off the bench, drove the length of the court and sank a 14-foot off-balance shot to cut the deficit to two points, 83-81, with nine seconds remaining.
The Hawks immediately fouled Gordon Austin. The handful of AU fans breathed a sigh of relief when Austin sank the first free throw for a three-point lead. The second one caromed off the rim into the hands of Mitchell. The Eagles stood still as Mitchell raced the length of the court for a meaningless layup to close out the scoring.
Austin, who scored only three points but had eight assists, said the first shot was the one that he wanted to make. "That was the one that counted the most," he said. "I tried to make the second one and it almost turned into an air ball. Either way, I knew we had them. The important thing was to get the ball in play so that clock would run."
Austin came off the bench early in the first half and had no problem penetrating the slow Hawks' 2-3 zone, handing the ball off the Sloane and Ross inside. Ross was particularly effective, scoring 12 points, eight from the line, and Sloane six. When the Hawks sagged to cut off the inside, Robin Hoey (10 points) scored from the outside to help the Eagles to their seven-point halftime lead.
St. Joe's did a much better job rebounding in the second half, muscling their way for several second attempts. Costner's three-point play finally gained the lead for the Hawks, 53-50, with just over 12 minutes to play.
But Nickens scored 13 of his team's next 21 points to bring the Eagles to within a point, 72-71, with 1:39 to play. Nickens had made five shots in a row before he missed the one that was rebounded to send the game into overtime.
An extra five minutes was all the Eagles needed as Sloane (16 points), Nickens and Austin earned AU its second 20-game season in 21 years.