- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

SAUCON VALLEY, Pa. — For American University, the third time wasn’t the charm.

Lehigh freshman Jose Olivero hit an off-balance jumper with four seconds remaining to lift the Mountain Hawks to a 59-57 victory over the Eagles in the championship game of the Patriot League tournament.

American, which lost in the final for the third consecutive year, managed to get the ball up the floor in the final three seconds, but Matej Cresnik’s jumper clanged off the rim, ending the Eagles’ chances of a first visit to the NCAA tournament.

By winning its first Patriot League title, Lehigh (20-10) will make its second trip to the NCAAs. The first came in the 1987-88 season.

The Eagles (18-13), losers to Holy Cross in the previous two finals, had a quiet four-hour bus ride home.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” American coach Jeff Jones said. “I’m proud of the guys and the effort we gave today and how we got this far. But this is obviously very painful. We’ve been here three times in a row, and I thought we had a good shot today. It would have been a big thing to get one of those and break through.”

It looked like the Eagles might with 21.3 seconds left, when senior point guard Andres Rodriguez converted a foul shot for a three-point play that tied the game at 57-57. Rodriguez drove to the basket from the 3-point arc and blew past a couple of defenders for the layup.

“I saw the lane was open, so I took off,” said Rodriguez, who finished with a team-high 16 points and six assists. “We thought we had a good shot at the end, but it didn’t work out.”

Just as he has all year, Rodriguez kept the Eagles in contention late. He hit a 3-pointer to get American within 52-50 with 3:20 left. After American fell behind by six with 1:22 left, he drained another 3, then tied the game with the three-point play.

“When other people were getting the headlines in his junior year, coaches knew it was Andres who was making it all possible,” Jones said. “This year, Andres had to be the guy who made things go. He grew as a player and as a leader. We’re certainly going to miss him next year.”

Cresnik thought he had a good chance on the last shot.

“I looked around and saw no one else open, so I shot,” he said. “I had a clear look, but I felt I pushed it a little to the left. Last year, we weren’t that close at the end. I didn’t think had the ball, and then he threw up a weird shot. Unfortunately, it went in.”

Lehigh controlled the tempo throughout, forcing play into a halfcourt game at both ends. Hence, American wasn’t able to get into its transition game, and Lehigh benefited from 26 points in the paint, including 13 from starting center Jason Mgebroff. Tournament MVP Austen Rowland finished with 14 points for Lehigh.

“We had a hard time scoring,” Jones said. “We would have loved to have gotten out in transition to increase out opportunities. Lehigh did a good job in their halfcourt transition. They were playing good defense and had a better chance at scoring.”

Another factor was Lehigh’s bench, which outscored American’s 23-12. Reserve guard Kyle Neptune scored eight of his 11 points in the final five minutes of the first half, helping the Mountain Hawks to a 30-29 lead at the break. Lehigh hit just three of its first 14 shots but wiped out most of an 18-9 deficit by holding American scoreless for 3:48.

“It’s a good feeling making through everything to get here,” Jones said. “It’s just isn’t any fun going home without a trophy. I feel bad for Andres and Jernavis to have their careers end this way.”

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