- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

Every time the subject came up this week, Garrison Carr, American’s fearless leader, would put on his best “What, Me Worry?” face and say no, he wasn’t stressed out at all about the upcoming Patriot League title game against Colgate. No, he would insist, he wasn’t thinking one bit about the history, about the fact that the Eagles had never made the NCAA tournament.

He was fibbing, of course — as athletes do. In fact, “I was thinking about it a lot,” he admitted last night. Heck, he was even dreaming about it, and would “wake up in the middle of the night, sweating. All I remember is that it was close at the end of the game, and it was very difficult for us to get any shots off. But in my dream, we were still able to win it.”

In the end, all of Carr’s — and his team’s — dreams came true. The championship game was close throughout, it was hard to find quality shots in the last few minutes, but AU “just gutted it out,” in the words of coach Jeff Jones, scoring the final seven points to beat Colgate 52-46 and advance to the Big Dance.

After the fans had rushed the court, the nets had been snipped and Carr had been handed the much deserved tournament MVP award, Jones talked about the emotions swirling inside him. “Obviously,” he said, “I’m happy for the school and for this group of guys. It certainly wasn’t a pretty game, but it was an exciting game.” Later, he spoke of “all the AU grads … so many guys who wanted this so much, that have waited so long and endured so many disappointments.”

This was the Eagles’ fourth trip to the league title game under Jones, but their first happy ending. And what made it even sweeter — if such a thing is possible — is that, at the start of the season, no one saw it coming. It’s hardly, after all, the most talented club Jones has fielded up on Wisconsin Avenue, which is why the media picked it to finish fifth in the preseason poll. It has just one senior, 6.1-points-per-game forward Travis Lay, and is really more a Team of Tomorrow than a Team of Today.

But toward the end of December, the Eagles played back-to-back games at Dayton and Maryland, and Jones began to wonder if he might have a special group of kids. They lost narrowly (63-56) to a Flyers club that was ranked at the time, and afterward he challenged his players, asked them, “Are you content with this” — with just playing good teams close, that is — “or do you want something more?”

Three days later at College Park he got his answer: American 67, Maryland 59. And even though there were some bumps in the road afterward, none bigger than the loss of forward Bryce Simon to a torn ACL in the league semifinals, the Eagles found a way to get into the NCAAs.

Down the stretch last night, they turned an airball by Brian Gilmore into a basket by blue-collar Jordan Nichols, who picked up some extra minutes with Simon out and responded by not missing a shot (three field goal attempts and one free throw in all). AU also overcame a rough offensive game by Derrick Mercer (1-for-10 from the floor, 2-for-6 from the line) by playing determined man-to-man defense and limiting Colgate sharpshooter Kyle Roemer to a mere 11 shots.

“I’m just so happy,” said Carr, whose 17 points tied Roemer for game-high honors. “I can’t even describe it.”

So happy, presumably, he might not even wake up in a cold sweat for a few nights. Every 82 years or so — and American has been playing basketball for that long — every program should have this feeling, should know how the Dukes and UCLAs of the basketball world feel every year. For AU, it has been a terribly long wait, and pardon them if they just let all soak in for a few minutes.

Ask Mercer if American and Colgate might meet in the final again next year, as young as both clubs are, and he all but waves off the question, saying, “We’re in no rush to think about next year. We’ve got the NCAA tournament to look forward to.”

Do the Eagles ever. They’ll gather around the TV set tomorrow and, unlike all the bubble teams, they won’t be wringing their hands and worrying about if they’re going to be admitted to the Dance . They’re already in. Say it again: American University is going to the NCAA basketball tournament. How about that?

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