- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

Nine of his 10 field goal attempts and each of his four free throws had misfired. In the biggest game of his college career, American University guard Derrick Mercer picked the wrong time to shoot blanks.

But he was undeterred. He wanted the basketball. Still. He wanted to be fouled. Still.

“I had been struggling and the guys were like, ‘It’s going to come. Don’t worry,’ ” Mercer said. “Thankfully, it came at the right time.”

Did it ever.

With the Eagles leading Colgate by three points and 18.9 seconds left in last night’s Patriot League championship game at Bender Arena, Mercer drained two free throws to seal a 52-46 win.

American’s 1,016th victory was perhaps its biggest. The Eagles clinched their first-ever berth in the NCAA Division I tournament. They’ll likely be a No. 16 seed when the field is revealed tomorrow.

Not that Mercer, fellow guard Garrison Carr (team-high 17 points), Brian Gilmore — who hit two free throws with 31.2 seconds remaining to extend the lead to three — or coach Jeff Jones (in his eighth season at AU) cared.

That was evident by the tears in Jones‘ eyes as the buzzer sounded, the way senior Travis Lay sprinted to the rim and hung on it for several seconds and Mercer’s joy in being the first player to cut down a piece of the net.

“I’m going to have to get home and look at the dictionary and come up with a word to improve my vocabulary, so I can adequately describe the emotions I and the whole team are going through,” said Jones, who coached Virginia to five NCAA tournament berths in the 1990s.

Jones harped to his team leading into the game that they had to focus on this season, not the previous decades of futility.

“That’s a lot of pressure — I know I was feeling it, thinking about all that stuff,” he said. “I told them it’s about what they can do for them. Certainly, they’re aware of the history, but I didn’t want them dwelling on that. I wanted them to enjoy the moment and just play.”

Things appeared sketchy throughout the second half, though. AU led 27-24 at halftime but made only six of 25 shots in the second and trailed 38-34 with 9:22 remaining.

AU scored on just three of its first 17 second-half possessions.

The Eagles trailed for the final time with 2:24 remaining when Colgate sharpshooter Kyle Roemer hit a 3-pointer to make it 46-45.

Colgate didn’t score on its final four trips.

AU (21-11) took the lead for good when Frank Borden threaded a great pass inside to Jordan Nichols, who scored the layup. Colgate couldn’t answer and fouled Mercer, who clanked both attempts. After the Raiders came up empty again, Gilmore drained two freebies.

Gilmore’s productive 28-minute performance was punctuated by forcing a loose ball that set up Mercer’s two free throws.

“I’m just glad we won’t be watching [Selection Sunday] from our houses because we’re on Spring Break,” Gilmore said. “Knowing we’ll have an opportunity to play a game, it’s unbelievable for us.”

For many of the players, it was their first net-cutting ceremony. Mercer was first up and he didn’t know the protocol — he cut two sections before Jones told him it was one-and-done. School president Neil Kerwin was next and Jones snipped the final strand before waving it for the crowd of 3,044.

Reflecting back on the opening weekend of conference play, Mercer said, “When we first played Lehigh [a 71-54 win], we came out and played hard and I was like, ‘Oh, we mean business.’ And that kind of hard work is what got us here.”

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