PHILADELPHIA | The American dream unraveled down the stretch again.
For the second consecutive season, the outmatched Eagles outplayed a heavily favored higher seed for the bulk of a first-round NCAA tournament game, only to run out of starch at the end.
Last season, the Eagles gave second-seeded Tennessee a scare before the Volunteers pulled away late. Thursday’s near-nightmare belonged to No. 3 seed Villanova, which trailed the plucky bunch from Tenleytown by as many as 14 points before surging to an 80-67 victory at Wachovia Center that in no way mirrored the true nature of the battle.
“It’s disappointing to lose a game in which our guys played so hard,” said American coach Jeff Jones, teary-eyed when discussing a group of seven seniors who led the school to its first two NCAA appearances in consecutive seasons. “I don’t think there’s any question that we left it all out there on the floor. In the end, I think Villanova just wore us down.”
That final score would have seemed incomprehensible with 19 minutes remaining, when American completed a 13-0 run that wrapped around intermission to claim a startling 45-31 lead in the Wildcats’ home away from home.
Until that point, American jitterbug point guard Derrick Mercer was having his way on the offensive end with Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds (Herndon), a dubious defender who was left exposed by Villanova’s man-to-man sets. Time and again, Mercer (17 points, four assists) created opportunities for himself and teammates by exploding past Reynolds on the bounce and drawing help.
The primary beneficiary of Mercer’s largesse was fellow senior Garrison Carr (22 points). The 5-foot-11 sniper was devastating from behind the 3-point arc, connecting on six of 14 attempts, many with far taller Wildcats (27-7) draped all over him.
But the game changed when Villanova coach Jay Wright switched sophomore guard Corey Fisher onto Mercer at the first TV timeout of the second half. After struggling all night to contain the Eagles (24-8), the Wildcats found the magic defensive formula.
The result was a suddenly stagnant American offense and a 15-0 Villanova run that turned a 55-47 deficit with 11:17 remaining into a 62-55 edge with 4:57 left. During the drought, American endured 11 empty possessions, missed seven shots and committed four turnovers.
“Their main focus was to keep me out of the lane,” said Mercer, too classy to finger the Reynolds-Fisher switch as the turning point. “In the second half, they kind of achieved it.”
There’s no solace for American fans who again saw upset immortality slip through their fingers, but Silver Spring natives Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham sparkled during Villanova’s comeback.
The pair scored 25 points each for the Wildcats, and Anderson added a game-high eight rebounds. Almost as impressive, Anderson missed only one of 10 field goal attempts, giving the Wildcats the lead for good at 58-55 on a 3-pointer with 6:21 remaining.
“We knew we were in for a long night from the start,” said Anderson, who added he was not surprised by the skills or spunk that helped the Eagles to a 41-31 lead at intermission. “They are a great team. They played Tennessee to the wire last season, and we knew this would be no different.”
Wright lavished praise on the lower seed as well, saying he expected a dogfight after watching the Eagles on film.
“I think our guys were a little bit surprised by how tough they were, but I wasn’t,” Wright said. “I was torn between telling them exactly what to expect and seeming like I was too panicky. … Carr is a scary player. He’s as good as any guard we’ve played against this year. They played great.
“I think this was just a matter of us having bigger, stronger athletes at the end.”