After an undefeated conference record during the season and a 62-60 triumph over Drexel in the East Coast Conference tournament Wednesday night, American University -- an underdog most of the season -- is occupying a new role.
"Now we're on top and the pressure is on us. That's definitely a turnabut for us," said Coach Gary Williams. "But that shows we've had a good year. I know it's a lot easier going out to play when you're the underdog."
The 23-4 Eagles will be in their unfamiliar role as the favorite tonight when they take on Rider (14-13) in an ECC semifinal match at the Palestra at 10. St.Joseph's (20-7) plays Lafayette (15-12) in the other semifinal at 8. The survivors will meet for the championship Saturday night at 9. The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCCA tournament.
AU's victory over Drexel was supposed to be a tuneup but the hustling Dragons overcame a 17-point deficit to pull even before American guard Ed Sloane scored on a three-point play to win the game.
"We thought we had them put away but Drexel didn't quit and came back," said AU point guard Robin Hoey. "We stopped playing and laid back. But we played well at the end. I think we can win this thing."
At least Hoey and his mates won't have to worry about being manhandled on the boards by Rider, particularly if AU's 6-foot-6 Dennis Ross plays. The senior suffered back spasms in the Drexel game but Williams said he would probably start against Rider. If not, Williams will go with either Fernando Aunon or David Ridley or even try a three-guard offense with Hoey, Sloane and Gordon Austin.
"Rider will come in here very loose with nothing to lose," William said. "Like Drexel, Rider wasn't expected to win, either. Anything they got was a bonus. We assumed once we got that big lead, it was over. Drexel had other ideas. We can't afford to let up against Rider."
Rider, beaten by AU, 69-59, during the season, relies on the outside shooting of guards Tom O'Hara and Fred Lee, averaging 12.1 and 10.6 points, respectively.
Mark Nickens, who has scored 90 points in his last four games and was selected player of the week in the conference last week, Sloane and Hoey have been the leaders for AU this season. The Eagles already have surpassed the school record for most victories in a season.