- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The CBS cameras tried to capture that cliched image producers love so much this time of year: the forlorn underdog choking back tears as his dreams of a March miracle fall short.

Jordan Nichols saw the cameras coming and managed to contain his emotions. Although he and his American teammates battled valiantly yesterday, the 15th-seeded Eagles could not hold off a final Tennessee surge as they lost 72-57 in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

“We got blown out by Richmond in an exhibition game in our first match and to see the teams we’ve beaten this year and the way we’ve competed, I think we’re really proud,” Nichols said. “But we wanted to win this game.”

There are no moral victories this time of year, when the only way to keep playing is to win, but the AU players walked off the court heads held high, saluting the fans who made the 1,500-mile round trip to see the Eagles’ first NCAA tournament game in school history.

But the Eagles (21-12) played second-seeded Tennessee (30-4) tighter than most could have imagined, especially those in Las Vegas or in the Volunteers’ locker room.

Though they entered the game as a 19½-point favorite, the Volunteers held but a two-point lead with five minutes remaining in a game that, by all indications, AU had no business being in.

The Eagles didn’t take care of the ball (21 turnovers) or shoot particularly well (36.2 percent) as the bigger, faster Volunteers outscored them 22-6 at the free throw line. But from the opening horn, AU played harder and tougher — owning a 12-rebound advantage on the glass — and it wasn’t until after halftime that the Volunteers started matching the Eagles’ intensity.

“At the start of the game I felt like they weren’t really ready to play, I feel like we definitely outworked them,” said Garrison Carr, who scored a game-high 26 points. “I saw with about 10 minutes to go in the first half, that their guys were like, ‘Come on, we have to play to beat these guys,’ and might’ve come out and underestimated us a little bit. But then they turned the switch on and played like they were playing a number one seed.”

When the Eagles responded from one Tennessee push, countering a 10-0 run by the Volunteeers that broke a 40-40 tie with a 9-0 run of its own. But in the end, the Tennessee press wore down the Eagles, especially Carr and Derrick Mercer, who played a combined 79 minutes.

“I don’t think that we played any more effectively late, but being pressed and guarding the way we guard, we didn’t sit back,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I think that fatigue may have been a bit of a factor.”

The Eagles believed from the start they belonged on the court with the SEC power that, only one month ago, was the No. 1 team in country. And they proved it for nearly 40 minutes.

It left players with mixed emotions, disappointed that the finest season in program history had ended but proud in the way the Eagles had handled the challenge.

It was enough to keep Nichols from welling up, even with the television cameras zooming in.

“I think we can look ourselves in the mirror and be proud and wear our American University gear and hold our heads high,” Nichols said. “A lot of teams go out there and get blitzed by the top seeds, but for us to not do that, it shows the nation that we’re an improving program.”

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