For the second time in three years, American University lost a close East Coast Conference final as La Salle prevailed, 75-73, tonight at Kirby Field House.
The Explorers (17-13) advanced to the mini-round of the NCAA tournament Wednesday at Philadelphia's Palestra against ECAC-North champion Boston University.
The Eagles (20-10) had their chances, just as they did two years ago in the final against St. Joseph's when AU blew a seven-point lead in the last four minutes. Tonight, American had an eight-point first-half lead before the Explorers scored six points in the half's last two and a half minutes to narrow the margin to 35-33 at intermission.
Six minutes into the second half, La Salle was in front, 47-41, and never relinquished the lead. Marvelous efforts by seniors Mark Nickens (24 points on 11-for-20 shooting) and Ed Sloane (23 on seven-of-12) kept pulling the Eagles within a single field goal, but Steve Black, who finished as the game's top scorer with 28 points on 12-for-22 marksmanship, always had the answer. The sophomore Explorer guard made jumpers from the corners, the top of the key, hanging and twisting in the lane.
AU cut the margin to 61-60 on Nickens' 15 footer with 5:53 left, plenty of time, seemingly to continue a comeback and gain that first ECC title and NCAA bid. But missed free throws and turnovers stopped the rally. The Explorers took a 72-65 lead with a minute and a half remaining, then held on as AU scored six points in final 19 seconds.
"We played hard. They just played better," said a subdued AU Coach Ed Tapscott. "We played well in the first half, but we didn't play intelligently in that one stretch and we let them back in it. That was pivotal. We've had a tendency to do that this year."
La Salle Coach Lefty Ervin took a Michael Brooks-led team to the NCAAs in 1980, but said this victory might have been sweeter. Maybe because La Salle is moving to the Metro Atlantic Conference next year.
"It's such a wonderful feeling because of all the adversity, the injuries and the games that could have gone either way that we lost," Ervin said. "We beat an excellent team, one of the best we've played this year. I knew when we were physically healthy and had Stevie (Black) back, things would open up."
AU made 50 percent of its field goal attempts, but only nine of 19 from the free throw line.
"We've been struggling there (at the foul line) for quite some time," said Tapscott. "It's difficult to stop Black when he gets it going and he got it going tonight."