Hard-fought, sloppy, physical: Any way you slice it, Wednesday night's Patriot League quarterfinal at Bender Arena was far from pretty.
Army scored just 11 points on four field goals in the first half. American had only one player finish in double figures — Daniel Munoz with just 11. Altogether, the two teams combined for 27 turnovers and 35 fouls.
But when the dust settled and the clock stopped, American coach Jeff Jones lumbered over to the post-game press conference, took a sip of his Coke and let out a slight grin. After emerging on the winning side of a 57-40 slugfest, the Eagles' skipper was pleased.
"For such an ugly game, it was beautiful for us," Jones said. "We played awfully hard — both teams played really, really hard — it was a really physical game, lots of contact. ... I think the big thing is that we kind of just outlasted them."
As poorly as the Eagles played at times, Army was worse. The Black Knights missed their last nine shots entering halftime and went without a field goal for a span of 13:12. Only three Army players had five points or more, including All-Patriot League selection Ella Ellis, who led all scorers with 13.
Yet it was exactly the kind of game that American has built its season on and exactly the kind of game that Jones likes to see. The Eagles have never been a high-scoring team, opting instead to grind out every possession. And with leading-scorer Charles Hinkle held to just 3 of 10 shooting, that is precisely what they did.
"That's the one thing coach Jones stresses from the day we walk in, from the first day in October: defense, defense, defense," Munoz, who also led American with four assists, said. "I think this part of the year we're starting to turn it up defensively, and it's at the right time. That's really our identity always, but now it's even more important to us."
"I feel like we just lean on our defense," Hinkle agreed. "Our offense is kind of like a grind-it-out offense as it is, and times like that we just lean on our defense ... when we can't score, [we focus on] not letting the other team score."
With Hinkle constantly under duress, American spread the ball around to nine different scorers, five of whom eclipsed their season averages in the game. Junior Blake Jolivette finished with eight points, five rebounds and three assists, while freshman John Schoof chipped in with six points and senior Simon McCormack with five.
Yet American's real strength was on the defensive end. By pressuring the 3-point line and holding Army to just 4 of 26 from beyond the arc, the Eagles were able to turn in one of their best defensive efforts all season. They led by double-digits throughout the second half and held the Black Knights to a season-low 40 points.
"I thought it was terrific," Jones said of his team's defense. "To hold them to 16 percent [shooting] in the first half, 33 in the second, 26 in the game, 15 percent from the 3-point line. Did we make mistakes? Sure. But I thought we were active, and we reacted to the ball."
The Eagles had every odd in their favor entering the game. They had never lost to Army at home and never lost in the Patriot League quarterfinals, period. But it took one of their grittiest efforts of the season to keep both streaks intact.
"Tired group of guys in the locker room, but it's a good tired," Jones said. "They'll sleep well tonight and hopefully we'll be excited about preparing for Lehigh.
"At this time of the year, you've just got to survive and advance."
Standing in their way is two-time Patriot League Player of the Year C.J. McCollum and the second-seeded Mountain Hawks. The two teams split the season series, but Jones is cautiously optimistic for Saturday's matchup.
"You play the games on the court, and we're going to do everything we can to find a way to win," he said. "Lehigh's a terrific team, C.J. McCollum is a very, very good player, but I like our team too. We'll tee it up and see what happens."
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