- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Plenty of banners hang in the rafters at American’s Bender Arena. They’re all nice for their respective accomplishments, including the 1973 team’s trip to the NIT.

But now AU is one win away from earning a banner that would blow the rest away. The top-seeded Eagles play host to third-seeded Colgate today with the Patriot League championship and the program’s first NCAA tournament berth on the line.

One win and these Eagles will etch their place in school history.

It’s definitely crossed my mind, the excitement that myself and everybody on the team and everyone in the American community would feel, but that was more earlier in the week, junior guard Garrison Carr said. The closer we’ve been getting into the game, the less I’ve been thinking about that and the more I’ve been thinking about what we need to do on the floor to win.

Coach Jeff Jones and his players have avoided thinking or talking about the accomplishment. Throughout the past few weeks, the theme has been focus — on the next practice, the next game.

But now the elusive goal has become more than a blurry fantasy, and Jones has narrowed his team’s focus even as other squads clinch tournament bids.

Basically Coach Jones comes into the locker room and lets us know, ‘Don’t let what you see on TV draw your attention, draw you in,’ junior guard Derrick Mercer said. It’s very seductive to see what’s going on and let it take your focus out, but [if we] just stay focused and if we do what we know what we have to do, man, we should be there.

AU’s signature victory — which the selection committee will consider for seeding if the Eagles win today — came at Maryland on Dec. 22.

But it also came with higher expectations that AU had to balance as it moved from a monumental win to season-defining conference games.

For the players, it was something you could see, the smiles on their faces, Jones said last week about the upset. Looking at the film afterwards, you could see the guys on the bench jumping around and all that. Hopefully it gave them some confidence that if we really, really focus and give ourselves a chance that good things can happen.

Good things happened for the Eagles, who put together an impressive winter, which included two wins over Colgate (18-13) and the regular-season conference title. Today is a chance to get over the hump in the Patriot League championship.

By us just going out there and doing our best and hopefully coming out with a win, we’ll make history, Mercer said. We’ll be the first team at American to do that. … But all that stuff will come into play after the game.

The Eagles repeatedly have brought the focus back to the next practice, the next opportunity to make a defensive stop or a game-winning shot. From a minute-to-minute standpoint, it has proved effective and useful, especially considering AU will be without junior forward Bryce Simon, who tore his ACL in the semifinals.

But in the story of their season, the Eagles understand all those successful plays and near-misses have built to this chance to make the NCAA tournament.

I feel like we put all this hard work now and we’re so close to accomplishing dreams of ours, why stop? We need to do everything we need to do to get the victory, Carr said. When I go to sleep at night, I just think that we came too far for it to end now.

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