American's Charles Hinkle ranks 18th nationally in scoring. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

The American University men’s basketball team was in a tight spot last weekend, losing at Colgate by a point in the final minute. Had this scenario played out a year ago, Charles Hinkle would’ve been, at best, the fourth choice to win the game.

But Vlad Moldoveanu has graduated, Stephen Lumpkins chose a baseball contract over his senior season of basketball and top returning player Troy Brewer was still not in the flow after returning from foot and ankle injuries.

As they’ve done throughout this season, the Eagles turned to Hinkle, who has blossomed into one of the nation’s finest scorers. Coach Jeff Jones charted a play for the 6-foot-5 senior forward. “It didn’t work the way we wanted,” Hinkle said, “but I found my spot.”

Hinkle was spot-on with 33 seconds left, hitting his fourth three-pointer of the half to lift the Eagles (15-8, 6-2 Patriot League) to their fifth victory in six games and remain tied with Lehigh (18-6, 6-2) for second in the conference behind preseason favorite Bucknell (18-6, 8-0).

AU and Lehigh will collide Thursday night at Bender Arena in a game that features the conference’s leading scorers: Mountain Hawks junior guard C.J. McCollum (21.3 points per game) and Hinkle (19.7).

Entering Wednesday night, Hinkle ranked 18th nationally in scoring among more than 4,000 Division I players. He is 30th in three-point percentage at 42.2, leads the Patriot League in three-pointers made (62) and minutes per game (34.5) and is fourth in free throw accuracy at 83.1 percent.

All of this has come after he averaged just 4.5 points last season — his first in Washington. Hinkle spent 21 / 2 years at Vanderbilt, where he redshirted with a broken foot and then struggled for playing time. He transferred to AU in the middle of his sophomore campaign and didn’t become eligible until the team’s ninth game last season.

How did a team from the Patriot League land a player from the mighty Southeastern Conference?

In summer 2007, the Eagles aggressively recruited Hinkle, who was a late bloomer on the national recruiting scene. Failing to receive any Division I offers at Los Alamitos (Calif.) High School, where he had started alongside current New York Knicks guard Landry Fields, he ventured to Hebron Academy in rural Maine to bolster his credentials.

Hinkle attracted attention at AAU tournaments and recruiting camps, and ultimately chose Vanderbilt over Iowa State and American.

“We were involved at least to the extent that he made a visit to campus, but when Vanderbilt offered, the bright lights were too much,” Jones said. “It’s a great example of not burning any bridges. He made his choice, we wished him well. In the back of your mind, you also have the thought that maybe it’s not the right place, and if it’s not, maybe we can get them on the rebound.”

Jones’s patience has been rewarded in recent years with transfers Hinkle, Moldoveanu (George Mason) and Brewer (Georgia).

Last year, with Moldoveanu providing the bulk of the scoring in his second and final season and Brewer making his debut, Hinkle averaged just 13 minutes.

“I thought I was going to have a bigger role, but I was playing behind Vlad and took it in stride,” he said. “I knew my following year I would have a better opportunity.”

Said Jones: “We knew he was a good player, we knew he could help us. How much and in what role, that was up in the air. He was playing a role of working hard, good defense, as opposed to what he does best: shooting the ball in the basket.”

Hinkle’s importance increased in the offseason when Lumpkins, a power forward who averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds, left school to sign with the Kansas City Royals and pursue a pitching career.

Hinkle’s role heightened in the fall when Brewer injured his foot in an exhibition game. Brewer continued to play but wasn’t at full strength. In December, in his first outing since returning from several weeks off, he hurt his ankle and missed two additional games.

With Brewer limited this season, Hinkle has led the way, scoring at least 20 points points 13 times, making at least four three-pointers nine times, and scoring 32 points against Saint Joseph’s and 31 against Quinnipiac. In the past two games, he has averaged 23 points and made 9 of 16 three-pointers. He also shares the team rebounding lead with 5.5 per game.

“He has been tremendous,” said Brewer, who is averaging 12.2 points. “With [Lumpkins] leaving and my injuries, it created a big opportunity for him. He’s been the hot hand for us all year. When that happens, we’re going to get him the ball.”