American's Fernando Aunon came up with a unique way to overcome an incipient cold last night. He decided to run more than usual, and his extra hustle resulted in a career high 24 points.
Aunon's output in American's 84-56 romp over Lehigh couldn't have come at a better time for the Eagles, who will need his inside scoring if they hope to advance to the final of this East Coast Conference tournament. They will play at Rider Wednesday in the quarterfinals.
With leading scorer Mark Nickens hobbled by a groin pull and Lehigh concentrating on playmaker Gordon Austin, Aunon found it easy to get open in the middle of the Engineers' spread-out zone defense.
"They told me that they wouldn't cover me in the middle of the zone if I cut in there, and they didn't," said Aunon, whose college best previously was 15 points. "It stayed open, and Nickens kept throwing me the ball."
Nickens' contribution in this first round game at Fort Myer was only four points in 24 minutes. He hardly played in the second half as Coach Gary Williams tried to allow Nickens to rest a pulled leg muscle, received in the second half against Temple Friday.
"We just have to hope rest will help the leg," Williams said. "He was hobbling around out there and we tried to keep him out of the game in the second half as much as possible."
Williams could afford to rest his star, thanks partly to Aunon, partly to American's tenacious defense and partly to Lehigh's horrid play.
The Engineers made it easy for American to win its 20th in 27 games, the first time an AU team has put together back-to-back 20-game seasons since moving into Division I in 1964.
Lehigh committed 32 turnovers (American had 24) and went almost four minutes of the second half before scoring. By then, the Eagles had moved from a 37-22 halftime lead to 42-22, making the rest of the game all but unnecessary.
Aunon, who is averaging only six points a game, was the lone Eagle who played well early in the game. He had 10 of his team's first 16 points, the main reason American led, 16-8. Then, after Lehigh closed to 17-16 with Aunon on the bench ("The cold really wore me down"), the Eagles went on a 10-2 surge during which Lehigh missed all but one of seven shots. Another 6-0 outburst just before intermission set up the Engineers for the second-half collapse.
"This was a tough game for two reasons," Williams said. "We were coming off two tough games last week that we didn't win, and we already had beaten Lehigh handily at their place the first time. We managed to get our defense going in the second half, which pleased me. You're going to have games like this over the course of the season."
Aunon, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, would welcome this kind of game every night.
"He can shoot," Williams said. "It's just a matter of him catching the ball and shooting in the right spots. If he can keep this up, it would be a big boost for us from now on. That way people can't concentrate on Mark and Gordie."
Aunon said he figured "the best way to get rid of my cold was to run it out. So I kept pushing out there until I got tired.
"It must have worked, because I'm not even sniffling now."
Williams got a scare early in the game when Austin, his prize playmaker, fell heavily on a drive and landed on his right elbow. For a moment, it appeared Austin might be hurt seriously, but after sitting out five minutes, he returned and played 31 minutes.
"For awhile, I was scrambling trying to find five healthy guys," Williams said. "This isn't the time to start picking up injuries."