- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

The day is here.
American University, previously obscure in top-level men's college basketball, will have a portion of the national stage all to itself today when it goes for its first Division I NCAA tournament appearance in the Patriot League tournament championship game at Bender Arena.
The top-seeded Eagles already have forged an unforgettable season, but a victory over No.2 seed Holy Cross would give the Eagles a dream finish and their first conference tournament title since winning the Mason-Dixon Conference in 1960.
"This is the Holy Grail," said AU athletic director Tom George of the opportunity to reach the NCAAs.
In a season when it emphatically reversed the program's losing trend, AU can end another bit of negative history by beating the Crusaders. AU lost four games in the Patriot League this season two to Lafayette, which the Eagles beat Sunday in the tournament semis and two to Holy Cross, the tournament's defending champion.
The last time the teams met at Bender, in the final game of the regular season, Holy Cross (17-14) laid a 24-point beating on the Eagles (18-11). That game was essentially meaningless because it came after AU had clinched the regular-season crown, but the effects lingered.
"The first game [a 63-54 loss], things went wrong on crucial plays, crucial plays at the end of the game," guard Glenn Stokes said. "… The second game was out of hand from start to finish."
The Crusaders win with bruising interior play and unforgiving defense. They rank eighth among 326 Division I teams in scoring defense, allowing 59.5 points a game. On Feb. 23, they held AU to a season-low 44 points and have held the Eagles to two of their five lowest scoring outputs of the season.
The Eagles believe the linchpins to victory include controlling the boards and containing forward Tim Szatko (13.6 points, 6.6 rebounds). Szatko, the league's player of the year last season, stands 6-foot-8. And the Crusaders also have 6-11 Nate Lufkin, Patriot rookie of the year, and 6-9 Patrick Whearty, both of whom play significant minutes and are taller than any Eagles regular.
So AU's objective in the game is easy to identify, if difficult to implement.
"The biggest thing we've got to do differently is, we've got to meet their physical approach," coach Jeff Jones said. "They are a smash-mouth basketball team. We cannot finesse them. At the very least, we have to neutralize their physical and mental toughness. If we don't do that, we will not win."
AU will counter with power forward and Patriot player of the year Patrick Doctor, who again will wear protective glasses to shield a corneal abrasion to his left eye suffered in Saturday's quarterfinal victory against Lehigh. The scratch hardly bothered Doctor against Lafayette, when he scored a career-high 33 points, but it's unlikely he will get the same good looks against the Crusaders, who will run double teams at him when they don't collapse on him with a zone defense.
"I don't think we can close him down," said Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard, former Pittsburgh coach. "We know he will score, but we have to contain him."
As of yesterday afternoon, AU had sold more than 3,100 tickets for the game. An athletic department spokesman said the university is expecting at least 4,000 but the game could draw a sellout of 4,500 depending on walk-up sales. The university is prepared to add temporary bleachers if necessary. An ESPN broadcast crew will set up in Bender to put AU on national television for just the second time ever.
AU has recorded several firsts this season, but Stokes dismissed AU's lack of experience in this situation, saying the veteran squad has experience from other sources. At Tallahassee Community College last season, he and Eagle Nick Boyd played on a team successful in the regular season that lost early in the junior college national tournament. It stung.
"I really don't think you have to go through something to know how big this game is," he said.
Said Jones: "In tournament basketball, at least my belief is that the aggressor is the one that wins, the team that can impose their will on the game. You want to come out and attack, you don't want to be passive in any way."


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