- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Even though he lived just outside of Seattle, Garrison Carr was somewhat familiar with the basketball programs at Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington. And like the rest of the world, he got acquainted with George Mason during its Final Four run in 2006.

But another area school drew a blank.

“I couldn’t have told you about American University,” he said. “I never heard of it.”

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Fortunately for AU, the coaching staff had heard of Carr, an undersized but prolific scorer at Issaquah High School.

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“We knew he could really shoot the ball,” Eagles coach Jeff Jones said.

Carr’s father, Gary, held on to the recruiting materials, just in case. It also helped that Carr’s mom, Cita, is a Maryland graduate with strong family ties to the D.C. area. The coaches remained persistent when other schools backed off, “and lo and behold, I ended up at American,” said Carr, the two-time all-conference guard who helped lead the Eagles into the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

The 5-foot-11 Carr and 5-9 senior point guard Derrick Mercer, the Patriot League player of the year, form an undersized (both heights are generously listed) but experienced and dynamic backcourt. It’s the major strength of a 14th-seeded AU team that takes its 24-7 record into Thursday’s first-round game in Philadelphia against third-seeded and heavily favored Villanova.

Like last year, Carr, who hit six of eight 3-pointers and scored 24 points in the league title game against Holy Cross, was named the conference tournament MVP. He again led the Eagles in scoring (17.8 points a game) this season and made 108 3-pointers, ranking him 10th nationally.

But it wasn’t easy. After emerging from the shadows as a junior, when he scored more than 18 points a game and set a league record for 3-pointers, Carr no longer was a secret. He was targeted by opposing defenses, bumped and banged and guarded more tightly by bigger players.

“There are some times this year where maybe he got a little frustrated,” Jones said.

Said Carr: “Last year, [opponents] didn’t start putting a lot of focus on me until toward the end of the season. But by then, it was too late. I was already in such a groove and the team was playing so well that no matter what they could do, I don’t think it would have affected me or the team.”

The added attention, along with admittedly self-induced pressure to exceed what he did last year, caused Carr to struggle at times. During an early five-game stretch, he made just 17 of 78 shots. He was 3-for-31 against Georgetown and GW back to back. Midway through the conference schedule, he said, the coaches gave him a highlight film of himself “just to get the psychological burden of missing shots off my mind.”

He also had a sit-down with Jones, “and we refocused my mentality on the court,” Carr said.

Carr acquired his athletic genes from his father’s side of the family. Gary Carr is a former Washington Huskies wide receiver and defensive back. An uncle, Luther Carr, was nicknamed “Hit and Run” as a Huskies running back and reportedly would have made the Oakland Raiders if not for suffering a spinal injury in an exhibition game. Another uncle, David Carr, was a basketball player at Washington who averaged 20 points a game his senior year.

Gary Carr made sure his son played against older kids and worked overtime on his game. Because of his size and youthful appearance, he was always trying to prove himself. During his sophomore year at Issaquah, a fan came to a game dressed as a baby, wearing a mask of Carr’s pediatric face. That’s what some people called him “The Baby.”

“I was like 5-6, 115 pounds,” he said. “I looked so young and small out there.”

Carr said he went scoreless in the game until he hit a 3-pointer with about 30 seconds left to put his team ahead to stay. He ended up as Issaquah’s career scoring leader, but the big college programs mostly passed.

“I guess coaches couldn’t get over how I looked,” he said. “I was small, and I had this long, curly hair, and I wore glasses [off the court] and my jersey was always hanging out.”

Hardly playing during his first two years at AU seemed to validate those who ignored Carr. His transition was so difficult and he was so far from home that Jones said he expected him to transfer. Carr said he briefly considered it as a freshman but never gave it serious thought.

His major problems were defensive liabilities and being stuck behind better players. Carr also had an identity crisis: Was he a point guard or an off-guard? Jones tried him at both positions. The breakthrough happened during his junior season when Carr became exclusively an off-guard, paired with Mercer. Jones said it was the smartest - “and maybe the luckiest” - thing AU did with Carr.

Late in his sophomore year and continuing through the summer when Carr was back home, he and Jones began to speak more frequently. The two had previously talked about basketball and little else, but now it was open season on a variety of subjects.

“It wasn’t just about working harder or what he was gonna do on the court,” Jones said. “He and I needed to have better communication. … We got to know what made us tick a little better.”

Meanwhile, Carr said he returned to campus “with the mindset that I would be the best defensive player I could possibly be.”

The trip between his two Washington homes, back at home and in the District, is about 2,700 miles, and Carr has done it several times. But his game has traveled further than that.

“He could always put the ball in the basket,” Mercer said. “I knew when it was his time, he would be something special.”

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