When American clinched its first NCAA tournament berth last year, coach Jeff Jones needed a towel to wipe away his tears.
But Friday at packed Bender Arena, after the Eagles‘ 73-57 win against Holy Cross in the Patriot League tournament final, Jones’ emotions were far different. There was laughing and hugging, back slapping and high-fiving, but no waterworks as his team and the student body stormed the court.
“For me, it’s happiness, enjoying the moment and [having] a sense of pride,” Jones said. “Last year was a hell of a lot more pressure for me - it was like a relief because of the frustration of getting close and not doing it. Clearly this is a different kind of feeling, but both of them are pretty doggone good.”
Three times in Jones’ first seven seasons, AU lost the title game. But led again by guard Garrison Carr (the repeat tournament MVP), the Eagles have another banner to hang, a fitting send-off for a seven-member senior class that rose from 12-17 as freshmen to 24-7 this year.
“We wanted to go out with something special,” guard Derrick Mercer said. “They always say you want to be remembered, so why not be remembered for something great?”
As a No. 15 seed, AU lost to Tennessee in last year’s first round, a game Jones said he has yet to watch in its entirety. The Eagles will learn their seed and opponent Sunday.
“There’s still more out there,” Jones said. “When we hit the practice court on Monday, it will be all business, and we’ll see what happens.”
AU can be considered an upset threat if Carr can be as effective as he was against Holy Cross, scoring 24 points and hitting six of eight 3-pointers. Brian Gilmore added 18, Mercer had 13 and the Eagles held the Crusaders to 32.2 percent shooting.
Leading by 10 at halftime, AU went on a 17-7 run. Carr hit three 3-pointers during the stretch.
The Eagles couldn’t totally put Holy Cross away. Gilmore’s three-point play with 9:58 remaining put the lead at 17 points; even though American’s advantage never slipped into single digits, things got a little anxious until about the four-minute mark.
“We had a comfortable lead, but you can’t expect any team to fold, especially in the finals with so much on the line,” Gilmore said.
Added Carr, “Even though we were up by 12 to 15 points, it felt like a one-possession game.”
Carr became AU’s all-time 3-pointers leader (269) despite taking - and missing - only one shot in the first nine minutes. But he had eight points by halftime as AU used a 9-0 run to pull away from the second-seeded Crusaders, who shot a dismal 4-for-22 from the field before halftime.
Although the Eagles allowed 17 offensive rebounds and missed 13 free throws, they were sound when it counted most - 9-for-11 from the foul line in the final three minutes.
“American showed great poise,” Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard said. “We went into this game knowing we would have to stop Carr and Gilmore and at least contain Mercer. Obviously we didn’t do that, and as a consequence, when you don’t contain those guys they go on runs. And with the homecourt and with the crowd, those runs make it difficult to come back.”