Because of a sore right ankle, American University's Mike Sampson had done nothing athletic the previous four days except for 25 minutes of free-throw shooting.
"Boy, am I glad he shot those free throws," said a smiling Ed Tapscott last night after Sampson sank two free throws with six seconds left to enable Tapscott's AU team to defeat George Washington, 67-66, before 1,500 fans at Fort Myer Ceremonial Hall.
GW's Kenny Barer sank a 21-footer from the corner to bring the Colonials within 65-64 with 13 seconds left. Colonials Coach John Kuester immediately called time to set up the full-court press. But the Eagles broke it and Sampson was fouled by Barer with six seconds remaining. Kuester called time again to let Sampson think it over.
Sampson was thinking, all right.
"I was thinking that if I wanted anybody to be at the line, I wanted it to be me," Sampson said. "Goat or hero, but nobody else."
And he would have been the goat, too, if he had missed. But Sampson, who is listed at a media-guide height of 5 feet 11, stood tall and put in both shots for a 67-64 lead. GW's Troy Webster tipped in a rebound as the buzzer went off to make it 67-66 and make Sampson a hero.
American (4-0) is off to its best start since the 1972-73 season, when a Kermit Washington-led team opened with nine straight wins en route to a 24-win season and an NIT berth.
GW slipped to 4-3, and Kuester, although praising his team for its effort, was not pleased with its sloppy play and missed free throws in the last few minutes.
"You gotta take care of the ball, especially at the end, and you have to make your free throws," said Kuester, whose team was five for 11 from the line in the second half. "We got into a situation where we didn't do either."
AU's Chuck West had a career-high 22 points to lead all scorers. West scored eight straight points for AU before Sampson's free throws. West's basket with 2:23 left gave the Eagles the lead for good at 61-60. He then stole a pass and fed teammate Frank Ross, who went back to West underneath for a 63-60 lead.
Ross finished with 18 points, Sampson had eight and Eric White seven. For George Washington, Troy Webster led with 19 points (13 in the second half), while Steve Frick had 18 and Chester Wood 12.
GW led by 39-29 with 16:59 left but, over the next 4:13, the Eagles outscored the Colonials, 14-4. Sampson hit from the top of the key over the Colonials' 2-3 zone to tie it at 43 with 12:46 left. His off-balance 20-footer gave AU a brief lead, 45-44. But again GW, regrouped and took the lead.
Chester Wood and Troy Webster combined for 12 points to give GW a 56-49 lead with 7:18 to go. But Sampson, Henry Hopkins, Ross and West hit shots to give AU the lead, 59-58. Frick scored to give GW its last lead at 60-59 with 3:39 left.
In the first half, GW, down, 8-4, with about four minutes gone, tied it at 10 with 12:45 left on a basket by Mike O'Reilly.
But AU countered by outscoring GW, 8-2, over the next 4 1/2 minutes. West, who had 12 points in the first half, had three baskets in a row for AU to give it an 18-12 lead with nine minutes to go.
AU's Frank Ross hit a 19-footer to give American a 20-14 lead with about eight minutes left. But then AU got sloppy and went cold while GW got hot and sharp.
Over the next 6 1/2 minutes, the Colonials scored 17 straight points to take a 31-20 lead with two minutes to go in the half. The run was started by a Joe Dooley 20-footer, and then, in an odd sort of way, by a missed dunk by Dooley, who at 6-2 came close.
Tapscott called his second timeout of the run with 1:59 left and, 20 seconds later, Ross hit two free throws to end the Colonial string and start one for AU.
White hit one free throw with 33 seconds left to make it 31-23. The Colonials held for one shot, but point guard Joe Dooley drove the lane and his pass was intercepted. With no one back, West made a layup with three seconds left to make it 31-25 at halftime.