American University surrendered a 17-point lead in the second half before Ed Slone's three-point play with 34 seconds remaining lifted the Eagles to a 62-60 victory in an East Coast Conference quarterfinal playoff game before 2,1000 fans last night at Fort Myer.
The Eagles (23-0) will meet Rider, a 68-50 winner over Bucknell last night, in an ECC semifinal game at the Palestra in Philadelphia Friday night at 10. St. Joesph's will play Lafayette in the other semifinal at 8. The winners will play for the title and the automatic NCAA bid goes with it Saturday night at 9.
Eagle Coach Gary Williams would not have enjoyed his 36th birthday celebration had not the 6-foot-3 Sloane outmuscled everyone for his game-winning basket. Drexel (14-3) stole a page out of the Eagles' blitz book by scoring 17 consecutive points to pull even at 48 midway in the second half, then went ahead, 60-59, on a Mike Moran jumper with 59 seconds left.
AU then worked the ball around until Sloan took a short shot from the baseline. He rushed into the thick of things and somehow came down with the ball. The guard went up and his shot hit the bottom of the rim. Again, the hustling Sloan outfought everyone and this time kissed the ball off the glsass to put the Eagles in front, 61-60. Drexel's 6-9 Len Hatzenbeller (23 points and 11 rebounds) fouled Sloan on the play and the sophomore sent Williams, his teammates and an ecstatic group of fans into a frenzy as he made the free throw for a 62-60 lead.
"I couldn't believe I missed that layup the first time," said Sloane, who scored nine points and had six rebounds. "But I hung in there and went up hard to get the rebound. Hatzenballer was standing there and found me when I made the shot."
But Drexel, and 11-point loser here during the regular season and a surprising 66-55 winner over La Salle in a first round contest, came down to looking for Hatzenbeller inside. But the Eagles "weren't stupid and stopped that play cold" according to disappointed Dragon Coach Eddie Burke. The visitor had little choice but to shoot from the perimeter.
"We looked to go to Lenny first but Gordon Austin dropped back to cut off the pass," said Burke. "Mike (Moran) then took the shot."
Moran's 20-footer from the top of the key banged off the side of the rim and Mark Nickens, who led AU with 22 points and seven rebounds, got the rebound. He was immediately fouled. Nickens kept things in suspense by missing the front end of the one-and-one to give the Dragons a second chance to tie the game.
The Drexel strategy didn't change. Neither did the results. The Dragons couldn't get the ball to Hatzebeller and again Moran was forced to shoot from the long range. The shot caromed off the rim with two seconds left and this time Austin draped his body around the rebound to end the game.
"He took two good shots; they just didn't fall," Burke said. "I was proud of the guys, the way they got back in game. Our obvious plan was to go inside. That's the way we caught up. But we didn't want to force the ball in and the clock was running down. It was a good shot."
The AU players were understandably happy with the win, but there were a few frowns when someone mentioned the 17-point lead.
"We stopped taking the ball to them," said Robin Hoey, whose outside shooting (17 points) was a big factor in the first half. "We should have run it up when we had the chance."
The Eagles shook off a slow start and finally went ahead, 33-26, at the half. Getting six points each from Sloan and Nickens, AU went ahead, 48-31, with 15:55 to play. But then, the Eagles' coaching staff called off the full court press that helped them to the lead.
Disaster. "A coaching mistake," according to assistant coach Ed Tapscott.
While the Eagles were wondering what happened to their poise, Hatzenbeller scored 10 points to lead the Dragons on their 17-0 streak and gain a 48-48 tie with 10:43 to play.
Once the smoke cleared and Williams stopped screaming, AU got back basics. The team traded baskets until Moran's basket and Sloane's game winner.
"We just couldn't get it down tonight," said Williams. "Drexel's defense took us out of our offense. They made that run at us and we lost a bit of concentration. We only played well for about five minutes."
Including the final 34 seconds.