Gary Williams was very concerned about this one. The American University coach knew his team, coming off Tuesday's emotional conference victory over St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, would have a hard time with Richmond at Fort Myer last night.
"I've seen too many times where teams have played well, with so much emotion one night, that they suffer lapses that next game," Williams said. "I knew what to expect against Richmond. I was really worried."
Williams still was worried at halftime after his Eagles had shot just 44 percent and the score was tied at 30. He told his players to let their defense win the game; with better defense the offense would improve. They followed instructions, and Williams stopped worrying.
The Eagles (21-4) put a halt to the Spiders' easy inside baskets, made 16 of their 19 shots and won, 75-69. That tied an 8-year-old school record for victories in a season and put them another step closer to qualifying for the NCAA championship tournament next month.
But even though AU shot a phenomenal 84 percent the second half, the victory wasn't assured until the last six minutes when the Eagles stole the ball four times for layups.
AU forward Mark Nickens made nine of 13 shots for 21 points, and down the stretch showed uncommon poise for a sophomore. Robin Hoey scored 19 points, four on layups after steals by Gordon Austin and Nickens with the game still close.
"I don't know if most teams would have looked downcourt for those passes," Williams said. "They might have gotten the ball and been happy just to run some time off."
Another fast-break basket by Austin, who had 16 points and four assists in 27 minutes, was preceded by Ferdie Aunon's blocked shot that appeared to be goaltending. But no call was made and Austin put AU up, 54-46, instead of the Spiders (13-12) trailing by only four.
"I thought (Lou) Grillo was part of the AU staff," Richmond Coach Lou Goetz grumbled, referring to the referee.
The Eagles made 13 of 17 free throws in the second half, but both coaches insisted it was defense that pushed AU to victory. "When you're flat like we were in the first half," Williams said, "you pick up intensity on defense. At halftime I stressed defense because I knew we could defend better.
"I didn't want to dwell on something we might not be able to change (bad shooting), but I knew we could play better defense."
The key was Nicken's ability to slow down Richmond's all-time leading scorer, Mike Perry. He had a game-high 28 points, but 16 came in the first 20 minutes and six when AU had leads of up to 11 points.
Before the game, Williams had tried to impress upon his players the importance of winning this non-conference affair. "I told them you don't get 1.5 wins for beating St. Joe's and just one win for beating Richmond," he said. "They all count the same at the end of the season.
"This might sound funny," Williams continued, "but I thought we played pretty well for our situation, this game being between two (East Coast) conference games with St. Joe's and Temple (Saturday at 3 p.m.).
Just then Williams, sipping a post-game soda, began feeling queasy. "My stomach doesn't feel too good this time of year," he said.