Basketball doesn't get much better than what American University and St. Joseph's offered tonight. Intensity of the highest order. More strategy in one game than many teams use in a week. There was so many thinking that AU's Gary Williams used his last timeout with eight seconds left to remind his players they had won.
To some sideline cynics, that final bit of mental gymnastics seemed very dangerous. AU had a three-point lead and Gordon Austin one more free throw.But if the Hawks scored quickly and AU coudn't get the ball inbounds there would be no timeout left to fall back on.
Williams knew better, that one timeout was irrelevent, that no two-legged Hawk could go the length of the court and score in less than three seconds. In one one America's snakepits, where year after year AU somehow finds a way to lose in the Palestra, Williams kept his wits. He takes it from there, quoting himself to the team in that final huddle:
"There is no way St. Joe's can win. There is a way we can lose.The way we can lose either is to call time or foul somebody. St. Joe's can't possibly score in less than three seconds. Which means that only five seconds or less will be left when they do. They have no timeouts left. They can't stop the clock (without getting a technical foul). So when they score, don't do anything except let the clock run out."
It would be even better if Austin missed that final foul shot, because AU needed the extra tick a rebound would take more than a point. Williams forgot to tell Austin that, but the sophomore lead guard missed anyway. Almost too badly. When the ball was halfway to the rim, it seemed AU had another chance to lose: an air ball.
Almost nobody thought about that. Except Austin. He knew that if he missed everything, and with the other four Eagles nesting under the St. Joe's basket, the Hawks could bring the ball inbounds, fling a long pass and possibly throw up something magical in under those precious three seconds. So. . .
"All I was concentrating on was the rim," Austin said. "Either hit it or put the ball over it." He grazed it, ever so slightly, the ball barely reaching iron. To the casual fan, it seemed awful. To the brilliant degenerates who faithfully pack the Palestra, it was perfect.
Sure enough, it took Billy Mitchell nearly six seconds to score the final, harmless layup.
Already, the Eagles were screaming. Starting to slap and hug one another.
In this special season, this was the most special victory of all. Without Boo Bowers, or an almost certain 26 points a game, they had won 20 games. And beaten a long-time nemesis in hostile territory. And clinched at least a tie for the East Coast Conference East Division regular-season championship.
No Eagle dared consider such folly two months ago.
But every Eagle kept saying how this victory symbolized the season. With no Bowers, everyone contributed more every game. Somebody always did something unexpected. Tonight, AU won in overtime after its second-best rebounder, Juan Jones, and its best shooter, Robin Hoey, fouled out.
Mark Nickens made every clutch basket and free throw, Austin every important pass and steal, Dennie Ross the vital rebound and same-motion followup basket to send the game into overtime.
"They see a big basket out there," said St. Joseph's assistant Brad Greenberg.
It was a game of contrasts, AU's quickness against the height of the Hawks.
"And they capitalized on their advantages better than we did," Greenberg said. "They did a terrific job of covering up for such a small team." Such a good job, in fact, that the most embarrassing statistic, the one that ultimately led to the final score, was rebounding.
With a front line full of 6-foot-5 leapers, AU had 11 more rebounds than the taller Hawks. Three Eagles, one of them guard Ed Sloane, had more rebounds than the 6-10 St. Joe's center, Tony Costner.
Man for man, AU was better. When the Eagles got St. Joe's in a situation where it could no play zone, they scored almost at will.
"Teams don't want to go man with us," Nickens said. "Mostly, we see zones. But we have five shooters, so we can do well against them, too."
"Sweet . . . sweet . . . sweet," Williams kept mumbling, over and over, seemingly in a daze as he made his way the 50 yards from the AU dressing room to the press room. He played the young innocent in the land of big-time coaches, saying, "What do I do? This is only my third year."
Williams volunteered that "the players kept their cool better than I did," that a second-half technical foul that seemed to turn the officials his way was dumb. But his mind hardly was mush, because when somebody wondered about a possible rivalry between himself and his predecessor, Jim Lynam, now the St. Joe's coach, Williams shook his head no. But he added:
"We won this game about the same way we won last year at our place: a last-second shot."
Williams talked about his players as winners more than outstanding talents, saying of Nickens, "If you lined up 10 players for a playground game, he might well be the last one picked."
Nickens is AU's latest gem, comfortable at two positions, the player who, probably more than any other, kept the loss of Bowers from being a disaster. He has kept the Eagles flying, if not quite asking: Boo who?