American University was unable to handle the "Thin Man" tonight and its dream season came to an end in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. Toledo's bruising defense and the 29 points and 10 rebounds of 6-foot-6 Harvey Knuckles beat the Eagles 91-83.
The Mid-American Conference Rockets (21-9) will meet the winner of the Michigan-Duquesne game in the NIT's second round either Sunday or Monday. The eagles' best season in the school's history ended at 24-6.
Even the return of Boo Bowers, out eight weeks with a sprained knee, couldn't snap the Eagles out of a first-half slump that had them shaking their heads in frustration, and behind, 39-29.
"I don't know what it was," said Mark Nickens, who had 23 points, one less than teammate Ed Sloane."It was like our timing was two steps off. We just didn't get off to a good start."
Unfortunately for AU, Knuckles did get off to a good start. The reed-thin senior, who needed only five points to become the leading single-season scorer in Toledo history, put his name in the record books before the game was six minutes old. The Eagles led, 8-2, then allowed Knuckles to get loose and turn the game into a nightmare for AU.
Knucles, hitting jump shots from the corners, scored nine of the 11 points that put the Rockies ahead, 13-8. The rest of the half, nothing went right for the Eagles. Their advantage in quickness didn't help much as, after losing their defenders, they missed more open slots then they made.
AU made only 11 of 29 shots that half and was beaten soundly rebounding by the more physical Rockets.
"We were tentative and that hurt us," said disappointed Coach Gary Williams. "Toledo played good defense and we had to work to get anything inside. We aren't a team to shoot long jumpers. In the second half, we said, 'Okay, let's just go out there and do it."
The Eagles played much better the next half. They kept the Rockets away from the rebounds better and their shots started falling. But they never caught up.
"I thought we'd catch up," Nickens aid. "We were playing better. If we could've pulled even, school would have been out."
The Eagles made several runs in the second half after falling behind by as many as 14 points. A rally led by Sloane and Nickens made the home folks nervous, Sloane's two baskets closing the deficit to 64-58 with 8:44 to play.
But Bowers was having trouble moving. He made only two of nine shots, missed his only free throw and had three rebounds in his last game for the Eagles.
"The knee tightened up a bit in the second half and I couldn't shake my man," he said."I could jump pretty good vertically but I couldn't cut too well."
Williams substituted for Bowers as often as he could on defense, but Toledo was moving too quickly for that strategy to work well. And Knuckles, playing with a bad hamstring, returned to the game after slightly hurting the muscle again and scored twice to recharge his tiring teammates.
Two Toledo bruisers, 6-7 Mitch Adamek (20 points, 10 rebounds) and Dan Boyle (seven points, six rebounds) shoved the Eagles around enough to get several second shots. And each time AU rallied, either Boyle, Adamek or Knuckles would get free for a layup or a short jump shot.
"I think one of the keys was that AU forced us into 20 turnovers (19) and they only got 11 points out of it," said Toledo Coach Bob Nichols, who hasn't had a losing season in his 18 years here. "We knew they had excellent quickness and we worked hard at getting back on defense."
AU lost two starters, Juan Jones and Robin Hoey, on fouls, but made one last run at keeping it season going. Gordon Austin's jumper and Sloane's two free throws, after Knuckles made a free throw, pulled AU to 81-75, with 2:27 remaining.
But Toledo played keep-away long enough that AU was forced to foul or gamble, which usually resulted in Knuckles or Adamek getting free for layups. Both passes from slick point guard Tim Reiser (19 points, 11 assists) for dunks in the final 34 seconds.
"Getting here was still a big bonus," said Williams, who felt his club had earned an at-large NCAA bid. "I'm proud of the kids, they did a good job all year. We didn't play as good a defense as we've played in the past. There's no reason to feel bad about this game. Toledo is a good team."
There was another milestone tonight. Austin, while not starting a game, tied the AU season record to assists with 165. A few well-wishers smiled when someone mentioned Austin would return with Sloane, Jones and Nickens, next year.
"Don't talk about us too bad in the paper," Sloane said to a reporter. "We still had a great season."