For American University Coach Chris Knoche, it was a case of beating old master Lefty Driesell. For Knoche's players, it was a matter of proving to themselves that they are good enough to win the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
The Eagles, five points behind at halftime, sank 59 percent of their shots in the second half and exhibited overpowering team defense to conquer James Madison, 82-70, yesterday at Bender Arena.
Brian Gilgeous had 23 points and a game-high 12 rebounds for American (12-12, 7-6), which held the CAA-leading Dukes (16-8, 10-2) to one offensive rebound in the entire game.
"That was a sorry exhibition of basketball," said James Madison's Driesell. "I've been coaching 30-some years and that has to go down as one of the worst. They kicked our butt in the second half. We folded. We choked."
Steve Hood was a one-man gang for James Madison with 30 points. He had 17 in the first half, then shot four for 11 after intermission as Fred Tillman and then Donald Grant hounded him.
The Eagles were helping out on defense too. With less than two minutes left and American ahead by 11, it took the Dukes 28 seconds to set up a shot. When they did, Ron Davenport swatted Hood's attempt halfway down the court.
"They were running the same plays the whole game and Coach told us to help out on the screens," Davenport said. "That's all I was doing. We were pretty confident we could play with them. We played hard. We were determined to be just as aggressive and assert ourselves just as much as them."
The first half was tightly contested, with the score tied 10 times along with three lead changes. The Eagles were in front, 32-31, when they briefly lost their composure.
James Madison's Fess Irvin was fouled by Craig Sedmak, who angrily threw the ball in Irvin's direction and drew a technical foul as well as the personal. Irvin made three of four free throws to start the Dukes on a 10-2 run. American then held together long enough for Erick Grace to convert Brock Wortman's feed for a layup at the buzzer.
"I was worried at halftime," Knoche said. "The last minutes before the half we were letting the officials bother us instead of playing our game. But we got things straightened out. We shot the ball extremely well in the second half, probably as well as we have all season. But the big thing was our defense."
James Madison still led, 52-49, six minutes into the second half. American went on a 13-4 run from which the Dukes never recovered.
This is the first season as a head coach for Knoche, 32, and he called this game his biggest victory.
"I grew up watching Lefty on TV and he's always been bigger than life for me," Knoche said. "But this was big for our players too. Sometimes we've played hard and sometimes we've played well, but this time we did both. Hopefully, it won't be the only time."
A noisy crowd of 3,868 supported the Eagles while waving pictures of Driesell and chanting "LSU" at Irvin, a transfer whose missed free throws once cost LSU an NCAA tournament game against Indiana.
"Hopefully, we can build on this," Gilgeous said.