Daniel Munoz wore the relieved look of man who spent nearly two hours on the spot, constantly badgered, constantly harried, constantly with an eye on survival.
Thursday was not the most enjoyable night for the American point guard, aside from the final buzzer. The Eagles had dispatched Mount St. Mary’s 62-57 at Bender Arena, and Munoz had shrugged off a pressure-packed game with a strong end game.
Yes, he had eight turnovers against the Mountaineers’ mayhem, and his responsibility for each varied. He also made four free throws and collected a crucial steal in the final 15 seconds to seal a victory.
“That’s what you expect from your senior point guard,” American coach Jeff Jones said. “There was a lot of pressure tonight on Danny. He has to shoulder a heavy load for our team, and he will in every game this year. He might as well get used to now. That’s kind of what we’ve come to expect.”
There were no artistry points for the Eagles (2-1) in their home opener, no bit of dominance to offer assurance of plenty of comfortable triumphs in the weeks and months to come. And really, that was OK.
It was a reminder American, despite some athleticism limitations, still knows exactly who it is. And no one represents that better than Munoz, the cerebral senior who has seen plenty over the last three years.
Now he’s seen something else.
The Mountaineers (1-2) have adapted superbly to new coach Jamion Christian’s pressure-oriented system, a stark contrast to the plodding system employed the last few years. The Mount might not be headed for a Northeast Conference crown this season, but they surely won’t fade quietly, either.
Munoz found that out quickly, with five turnovers in the first seven minutes. Everywhere he tried to pass, a hand was there to deflect it away. Every time he stepped back before starting a play, a defender was there to greet him.
Jones acknowledged American scrapped its play calls in the second half, going small, adding an extra ballhandler and hoping some perimeter opportunities would open.
They did, but the Eagles still were tied after a Mount layup with 20.4 seconds left. Munoz then drew a foul near midcourt, made two free throws and then picked up a steal out of a scrum with 4.1 seconds left and managed a timeout.
He got the ball off the ensuing inbounds pass, was fouled and then made two more free throws to effectively clinch the win.
“I was able to handle it at the couple times at the free throw line,” Munoz said. “I’m just really glad to get that one.”
There won’t be many quite like it for the Eagles, who shot 71.4 percent while committing 16 turnovers in the first half. The final 20 minutes were a bit more orthodox, but this could nonetheless be filed away as a weird and ugly-yet-entertaining contest.
It doubled as senior forward Stephen Lumpkins’ first home game since returning from a stint playing minor-league baseball. His 21 points reflected an efficient offensive night and helped put the Eagles in position to turn to Munoz to finish things out in the final minute.
“Danny’s a lot more confident now,” Lumpkins said. “He was good when I was a junior and he was a sophomore, but you can tell he’s been playing another year and he’s a senior now. We wanted to get him the ball at the end of the game and he made the free throws to put the game away like you want a senior point guard to do.”
—- Patrick Stevens