Flashback: Last March. Six seconds remain in the East Coast Conference championship basketball game. Robin Hoey's 16-foot jump shot hits off the front rim and American University eventually loses to St. Joseph's, 66-63. The Hawks win the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
Although AU compiled a school-record 24-6 season, including an 84-83 victory over St. Joseph's to win the ECC East regular-season title, and was awarded a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, the Eagles had an empty feeling. They felt even worse as St. Joseph's advanced three rounds in the NCAA tournament, defeating Creighton, top-ranked De Paul and Boston College before losing to eventual champion Indiana.
A year later: AU (19-5), having won a school-record 14 straight games, finds itself in almost the exact position again. The Eagles' 8 p.m. games against St. Joseph's (21-4) tonight and Temple (18-6) Friday night at Fort Myer will decide the ECC East regular-season champion and the seeding for the tournament next week.
Temple is in first place with a 10-0 record, St. Joseph's is 9-1 and AU is 8-1. AU would tie Temple for first place and get the No. 1 seeding if it wins both games this week; the Eagles would assure themselves of a first-round bye by defeating St. Joseph's.
"In the back of our minds, we've been looking at these games since the beginning of the season," said AU Coach Gary Williams. "It's a good feeling knowing you can control your own destiny. This is a good opportunity for us to play in postseason whereas a lot of teams are done."
Williams won't have to make any Gipper-type speeches to inspire his players.
"After last year, we won't have any problems getting psyched up for St. Joseph's," said AU forward Mark Nickens, the ECC's leading scorer at slightly under 20 points per game. "Both teams have something to reflect upon, so this game should be even more intense than the two last year."
A key for AU this year, as it was last season, is Juan Jones' defense against 6-foot-10 Tony Costner. The 6-6 Jones, who is playing with a face mask to protect a broken right cheekbone, will be facing a more aggressive Costner (15 points, seven rebounds) this time.
AU also needs Ed Sloane healthy. The 6-3 guard, who is averaging 17 points per game and is AU's quickest and best defensive guard, suffered a sprained left ankle Thursday and sat out Friday night's victory over Catholic. He is expected to start tonight.
Sloane and Gordon Austin, the ECC assist leader, will be paired against quick Jeff Clark and Bryan Warrick (16 points per game), who have combined for 230 assists and 116 steals. Both are also fine outside shooters. The other front court starters are 6-5 Nickens and 6-7 Fernando Aunon for AU against 6-5 Lonnie McFarlan and 6-7 Bob Lojewski.
"The back court battle will be interesting," said Hawks Coach Jim Boyle, who this season replaced Jim Lynam, the former AU coach who joined the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers. "But the key will be our getting the ball in to Tony. AU will have to worry about who'll stop him."
Both teams are hitting their stride. AU is shooting the ball extremely well and playing good team defense. Austin has been able to get the ball inside and Jones and Aunon also supply good defense and rebounding.
The Hawks, who have beaten Syracuse (59-58) and Villanova (84-64) and barely lost to De Paul (46-44, in overtime), are versatile enough to play a fast-paced shoot-and-chase or a half-court tempo. AU prefers a fast-paced game.