Bradley rendered American University's greatest strength, its full-court zone press, ineffective in the first five minutes tonight, opening a 14-point lead on the way to a 76-65 victory in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Bradley, the Missouri Valley Conference regular season champion, had been bypassed by the NCAA selection committee for an at-large berth in its tournament. There was little doubt that Bradley had better, bigger talent than American. The only question was whether the Braves would play angry and hard, or disappointed and passive.
They played hard, attacking AU's press by hitting open men, moving the ball quickly from base line to base line and using their size to dominate rebounding. The score went quickly to 17-3 and, at the end of what should be the final game in Robertson Field House, a tape of the song "New York, New York" was played loudly over the public-address system as cheerleaders and a few fans danced on the raised floor.
Bradley (22-10) has to win two more games before getting to New York for the NIT semifinals. Monday, the Braves will be on the road unless St. Peter's pulls a major surprise in a first-round game Friday night at Syracuse. If St. Peter's wins, then Robertson will get its fourth final game.
American, led by Ed Sloane's 24 points and Mark Nickens' 19, reduced the deficit to seven points early in the second half. The Eagles finished 21-9 and will return every player from a team that accomplished an AU first: back-to-back 20-win seasons and post-season tournament bids for the first time in the school's 18-year history in Division I.
In addition to breaking AU's press, Bradley had a 36-23 rebounding margin, and the Braves received a career-high 19 points from point guard Willie Scott, a 5-foot-11 junior. Scott was shooting 43 percent before this game, but made nine of 11 shots tonight, all but two coming on long jumpers as AU sagged on Bradley's front line of 6-9 Don Reese, 6-8 David Thirdkill and 6-8 Mitchell (J.J.) Anderson.
"We didn't want Anderson to get 40 or Thirdkill to go crazy. We didn't know he (Scott) could do that," said AU Coach Gary Williams. "Looking at the stats and what we knew about him . . . you have to take away the good players first."
Scott's shooting merely made sure American did not get closer than seven. His leadership against the press was his most important contribution.
"They have an excellent press," said Scott. "But we've got an excellent press-breaker and we got the ball out and ran."
"I told them, 'Take the press, attack it and stuff it at the other end,' " said Bradley Coach Dick Versace.
That's exactly what the Braves did, getting six layups and an 18-foot jump shot by Scott to open the game and an 18-footer by Anderson that made it 17-3 with 15:05 left in the half. AU complicated matters in this span by making defensive mistakes, missing five of six shots and three of four free throws and committing four turnovers.
"We knew the start of the game would be important," said point guard Gordon Austin, alluding to good starts in close losses to Wake Forest and Tennessee. "We did just the opposite. Maybe we were a little unsure and passive. We were waiting for something to happen. We should have taken it to them."
AU also was hurt in its comeback bid in making only five of 15 free throws. Sloane made only two of eight by Sloane, but otherwise played a fine game in 37 minutes after not starting the game because of a minor violation of a team rule.
But Bradley is still in tournament play. Said Scott: "We're out to prove we're supposed to be in the NCAAs. But now that's behind us and all we can do is win the NIT . . . They can't keep us from being champions."