American Coach Jeff Jones pulled his point guard three minutes into the Eagles' game with Holy Cross yesterday, telling Andres Rodriguez that, nagging thigh injury or not, he needed Rodriguez to penetrate against the Crusaders' enormous front line.
That conversation produced a career-best 10 assists and the Eagles' most significant victory of the season, a 72-49 pounding of Holy Cross, long the barometer of success in the Patriot League, at Bender Arena.
"Without Andres, we don't win this game," Jones said. "A lot of guys had very good games for us today, but if I had to center on and say [what] was the difference, it was Andres."
The American women lost their first game of the Patriot League season, falling to Holy Cross, 84-78, in overtime.
The Eagles men (8-10, 3-2) did what they had failed to do in three tries last season -- including twice at Bender in the final weeks of the season: beat the Crusaders (14-4, 4-1), who were playing for the third time in six days.
"This win is huge for our confidence," said American guard Glenn Stokes, who keyed a 16-2 run to open the second half. He scored nine of his 18 points in the burst, turning a 31-26 halftime lead into a 47-28 advantage with 15 minutes 44 seconds left.
Rodriguez had averaged 5.4 assists in the 11 games before he pulled his right quadriceps against St. Francis (Pa.) Jan. 4, and two assists in the seven games since. Even though he only took four shots -- producing four points -- his aggressiveness created opportunities for others.
"He makes so much happen for them," Holy Cross Coach Ralph Willard said.
Adrenaline was enough to ignore the stiffness, but Rodriguez needed Jones to persuade him to attack Holy Cross's front court, which rotates four players 6 feet 8 or taller.
"At first, when he took me out of the game so quickly, I was like, 'Hey, what did I do wrong?' " Rodriguez said. "Then he told me how much he needed me to look for my own shot first, instead of just moving the ball around on the perimeter."
Rodriguez and later Stokes took advantage of their quickness whenever defensive switches matched them up against taller players, and that penetration opened up Holy Cross's zone. Steven Miles made 4 of 6 three-pointers on his way to 18 points, and the Eagles' forwards, Jernavis Draughn and Matej Cresnik, scored 13 and 11 points, respectively.
On defense, the Eagles neutralized the Crusaders' height advantage by pressing after made baskets and using a 2-3 zone that had Stokes and Rodriguez harassing Holy Cross's inside players whenever they got the ball in the high post. Holy Cross was often forced to rush into shots as the shot clock wound down.
The Crusaders never made enough three-pointers to force American out of its zone, missing 13 of 15 attempts, and were prevented from scoring on putbacks, as the Eagles held a 38-28 rebounding advantage.
The Eagles women (11-7, 4-1) trailed for most of the second half, but rallied to tie the game on a jumper from Chanel Hunt with 48 seconds left in regulation. Holy Cross (11-6, 5-0) won despite 28 turnovers.