St. Joseph's Lonnie McFarlan came up with the big plays in the last two minutes and his two free throws with 15 seconds left snapped American University's 14-game winning streak, 51-49, in a dramatic East Coast Conference contest last night before a sellout crowd of 2,700 at Fort Myer.
The loss left the defending conference champion Eagles with a 8-2 record and, at best, a third-place finish in the ECC. They play Temple (10-0) in their final regular season game here Friday night. Win or lose, American (19-6 overall) will host a first-round conference playoff game here Monday night.
This game was almost a replay of the two cliff-hangers between these teams last year. American won the first of those, 84-83, and the Hawks the second, 63-60. McFarlan was a problem for the Eagles last year, too.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore, held to two points in last night's first half, came on strong after intermission. He scored 11 points, a running 10-foot shot giving the Hawks (22-4, 10-1) a 49-47 lead with 1:54 to play.
Gordon Austin (14 points) was called for a charge on American's next possession, but the Hawks gave the ball right back when Tony Costner, who played well in getting 14 points and 10 rebounds, threw a pass out of bounds.
But Austin and Juan Jones both missed jump shots before McFarlan lost the ball to an angry Jones with 38 seconds left.
Again the Eagles came down looking for the basket that would tie the score. Austin tried to spin around Hawk guard Jeffrey Clark and get into the lane, but Clark and Bryan Warrick blocked his path and he was caught in the air. He tried to pass inside to Jones, but the 6-10 Costner stuck out his long arm and slapped the ball down. McFarlan grabbed it and was fouled.
"Costner made a good play," said a dejected Austin. "I was trying to make something happen, but they changed defenses and we couldn't run our original play. I saw Juan open and thought I could get the ball to him. But Costner stuck his arm out and tipped the ball."
McFarlan made both one-and-one free throws to give the visitors a 51-47 advantage with 15 seconds left. Nickens scored at the buzzer for his 17th and 18th points.
"He (McFarlan) hurt us down the stretch," said Coach Gary Williams. "He made some good individual moves down the stretch and came up with some big baskets."
Both teams were tentative at times. Costner and 6-7 freshman Bob Lojewski wrecked the Eagles inside, getting 21 of their team's 23 points the first half. Behind their scoring, the Hawks at one point held a 21-11 lead.
But Austin and Nickens warmed up and led a 12-2 surge that pulled AU even by the half, 23-23.
Nickens made three long jumpers over an active, sagging zone as the Eagles pulled ahead by five points early in the second half.
The Hawks weren't having one of their better evenings. Warrick, their leading scorer at 15 points a game, managed only four and back court mate Clark had only two. But McFarlan came to the rescue.
He made two base line shots and assisted on a Costner layup that tied the score at 41 with eight minutes left. Seconds later, Warrick's inbounds pass was grabbed out of midair and stuffed home by Lojewski for a two-point lead.
The teams exchanged baskets until Jones put in an offensive rebound to pull American even for the last time, at 47, with 2:48 left.
St. Joseph's then worked some time off the clock before McFarlan dashed down the lane and made the go-ahead shot.