American University's seniors said goodbye to Fort Myer in appropriate fashion last night, scoring 62 of the Eagles' points in a 77-59 rout of Lehigh.
That earned them a rematch with Bucknell, the only visiting team to win at Fort Myer this year, in the semifinals of the East Coast Conference tournament Friday night at Easton, Pa.
"I'm glad it's Bucknell," said senior guard Gordon Austin after he learned that the Bisons had upset Hofstra. "We've been trying to forget that game and now we have the chance to wipe it out."
Lehigh, which finished 10-16, offered a statistical challenge by making 27 of 41 shots from the floor, 10 of 15 in the first half. Nevertheless, 15 turnovers combined with the fast-breaking Eagles' 53 percent shooting kept the Engineers from being a serious competitive threat.
Actually, most of Lehigh's offense was provided by senior guard Fred Ketcho. In the first half, he made seven of eight, most from range long enough to qualify as three-pointers if the ECC had such a rule. In all, Ketcho sank 12 of 17 and led all scorers with 25 points.
Despite Ketcho's efforts, American built a 28-21 lead at halftime, as Lehigh picked up 11 turnovers by persistently trying to get the ball inside AU's matchup zone. If the Eagles didn't intercept the passes, the Engineers' big men mishandled them.
American removed any doubt about the outcome in the first two minutes of the second half, scoring three baskets before Lehigh was able to take a shot.
Fernando Aunon scored on a twister from the base line after AU patiently waited for an open shot. Then Juan Jones excited the crowd of 1,689 by finished a back court steal, in which he escaped a Lehigh hand clutching his shorts, with a dunk. When Austin stole the ensuing inbounds pass and scored, it was 34-21 and out of sight.
Mark Nickens led the Eagles with 22 points, running his career total to 1,475 and taking fifth place on AU's all-time list away from Kermit Washington. Jones had 18, making seven of eight from the floor and all four free throws. Ed Sloane had 16 and Austin six, plus seven assists, a category in which he ranks fourth nationally.
Besides making 29 of 55 shots from the field, AU made 19 of 21 free throws, a bonus for a team that averages 68 percent at the line.
Jones had three dunks, each inspiring chants of "AU, AU" from the otherwise lethargic crowd, which was limited because of the school's semester break. There never was any chance of the players themselves taking this one lightly, because Coach Ed Tapscott roamed courtside, keeping them alert throughout.
"We've had a tendency in the past to let leads slip away, but tonight we kept putting the pressure on," Tapscott said. "I hope we keep the tempo right up. I like the running game and I hope the opposition keeps letting us do it."
Tapscott had kind words for Lehigh, as well as Nickens and Jones.
"Give Lehigh credit; it's difficult for them," Tapscott said. "They came down on game day, because of classes, and they were coming to a place where we had beaten them badly before, but they were well coached and I wish I could get some of my guys to do what they do fundamentally.
"Mark Nickens has played very well lately, but people still ask me why he isn't scoring 20 points every game. It's because we're a little more developed as a team, and we're getting more offense from Juan and Ferdie (Aunon).
"I hope Juan makes all-conference. He deserves it. When he takes the ball to the basket, a big guy with his agility, he can be awfully tough."
Only one incident prevented it being a perfect night for Tapscott. Referee Ed Cartotto, after bouncing the game ball, ordered a replacement. "Fred," he addressed Tapscott, the first-year coach who, like the Eagles themselves, faces a bit of a recognition problem.