DAN DALY: Seniors wake up just in time for the Eagles

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American’s basketball team was in a whole heap of trouble against Army on Sunday in the Patriot League semifinals. The Eagles trailed most of the second half, their top scorer in the game battled foul trouble throughout and, well, they just seemed out of sorts for a club that pretty much had its way in the league during the regular season.

Maybe it was just the earliness of the hour. A noon tipoff - and that’s after the clock was pushed ahead - is nothing to the West Pointers, who are used to 6 a.m. reveille. But AU’s players weren’t nearly as spritely in the early going. In fact, it looked like they might have skipped their morning coffee.

Fortunately for the Bender Arena crowd, it takes a lot to unhinge this Eagles team. The Eagles start five seniors - Garrison Carr, Derrick Mercer, Brian Gilmore, Jordan Nichols and Frank Borden - and bring another, Bryce Simon, off the bench. So when they fell behind 38-27 just after halftime, Gilmore kept things from getting out of hand by scoring 12 straight points. And when they found themselves down 55-50 with 2:36 left and Army in possession of the ball, they didn’t blink then, either.

“After one of the timeouts [near the end],” said Gilmore, whose 19 points led everybody, “we all looked at each other. We’re five seniors, and we’ve been through the wars. We didn’t want this to be our last game. Somehow - I don’t know how - we were able to do it.”

The Eagles were able to do it because Nichols, their one widebody and a player who rarely shoots, scored inside - his only basket in 37 minutes of action - to cut the deficit to 60-57. Then the 6-foot-5, 235-pound forward from DeMatha swooped over to block a shot by Army’s Josh Miller and started a fast break that ended with Gilmore draining a 3-pointer with 43 seconds to go.

Tie ballgame.

Their next time downcourt, the Black Knights put their fate in Miller’s hands again, let him work against the shorter Mercer, who had four fouls. But 5-9 Derrick, the Patriot League player of the year, got a hand in his face and caused him to leave a jumper short. Once more Nichols gathered in the rebound and a fast break ensued.

Why not call a timeout at that point, with 12 ticks still left - plenty of time to set up a play? Because among other things, AU coach Jeff Jones said, “You trust them,” trust the five seniors who have been together their entire college lives.

Still, the game could oh-so-easily have gone into overtime. Racing to beat the clock, Mercer tried to squeeze a bounce pass in underneath, but it got deflected, and “I thought we’d lost it,” Gilmore said. Luckily, the ball wound up in his hands, and he got hacked in the act of shooting. One miss and one make from the line later, the Eagles had a 61-60 win and were a game away from their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

Which is only fitting, really. This is, after all, the most successful senior class in AU hoops history. The school had never gone to the NCAAs before last year, and now the Eagles might be the only team from the D.C. area to make the tournament this season. It just didn’t seem right that these glorious careers would end in defeat - at home, no less - at the hands of a below-.500 Army club.

“If we had lost this game,” said Carr, who followed Gilmore in the scoring column with 17 (most, like his teammate, from long range), “it probably would have been the worst moment of my life, especially with all the expectations about this team. Being a senior, you want to see how far you can go.”

Actually, Jones pointed out, there would have been Life After Army had AU not gotten a favorable bounce in the closing seconds. As the Patriot League’s regular season champs, the Eagles will at the very least earn a berth in the NIT.

“Whatever happened [Sunday] - or Friday [in the league title game], we’ll have another game to play [in the NIT],” he said. “But that’s not the game we want.”

No, AU’s seniors got a taste of the Big Dance last year - losing to Tennessee in the first round 72-52 - and they’re thirsty for another. Besides, the Eagles might not have another shot anytime soon, not with their entire starting lineup about to be fitted for caps and gowns.

About the Author
Dan Daly

Dan Daly

Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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