American University almost botched a 15-point second-half lead tonight, but the Eagles made enough free throws in the final six minutes to hold off Rider, 71-65, and advance to the semifinal round of the East Coast Conference tournament.
Although the Eagles' foul shooting in the final minutes hardly delighted Coach Gary Williams (American made 14 of its last 22), it was good enough to offset an otherwise lackluster performance against outmanned Rider.
If the Broncs had played better at the start of either half, they might have upset American (21-7).
Instead, the Eagles used about 10 minutes of good play to set up Friday's semifinal matchup with Drexel in Philadelphia's Palestra. Drexel-- which upset regular-season ECC champion Temple, 61-55, tonight--beat American, 81-75, in January.
"Drexel? I can't believe they won," Williams said. "But they beat us worse than Temple did during the regular season. We're in for a game against them, even if we thought we were going to play Temple."
Probably the main reason American won tonight was its field goal accuracy. The Eagles shot 63 percent for the game, and 70 percent (12 of 17) in the second half. Rider was almost as good, making 67 percent of its attempts in the final 20 minutes to prevent all Eagle attempts at a blowout.
The better Rider shot in the final half, the more tentative American became. During one three-minute stretch, the Eagles refused to even fire one shot, which got the small crowd of 250 worked up and seemed to inspire the Broncs, too.
Williams called two timeouts during a three-minute span to try to shake his team out of its lethargy. But Rider was in the midst of making nine straight shots to pull within 57-50. That's when the Broncs, playing without three veterans who started at the beginning of the season, began fouling in hopes American would wilt at the line.
The Eagles almost cooperated. They finished the game missing the first shots of nine one and ones. But with American ahead, 67-61, Mark Nickens sank two free throws with 1:55 left to take off some of the pressure.
Nickens, who still is hobbling because of a pulled groin, scored 16 points to go over 1,000 points for his career. Guard Ed Sloane, who had 17, also went over the 1,000 mark. But Sloane was only three of eight from the line and had only eight points in the second half.
Forward Fernando Aunon, who scored a career-high 24 against Lehigh Monday night, came back with 16 tonight to supply some much-needed help for Sloane and Nickens.
"We knew we had a possible game against Temple coming up and it was hard to get the proper concentration," Williams said. "And probably the worst thing we did was to get off to a big lead. That kind of made it look too easy."
Indeed, it appeared American would win this one more easily than its 81-52 victory over Rider at Fort Myer in December.
The Eagles combined four turnovers into a 12-0 run that gave them a 22-8 lead. Sloane had two three-point plays in that surge, during which Rider was getting points from only one player, Ivan Felder. And Felder wasn't able to cope with a one-on-five matchup.
Then came the letdown. American didn't score a field goal in the final 4 1/2 minutes of the half while also committing four turnoves and missing two foul shots. That's all Rider needed to cut the Eagle lead to 31-24 at the half.
After some firm instruction by Williams, American outscored Rider, 12-4, to open the second half and take a 43-28 lead. But moments later, the Eagles stopped running, Rider starting shooting well and the result was a closer game than American wanted.
"We haven't been able to practice our first five that much together the final month and that hasn't helped," Williams said. "But we are at the stage of the season where that shouldn't be hurting us. We have to learn to play around it."