- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The best buzzer-beater in college basketball, at least over the past month, is an unassuming 5-foot-9 senior from Houston.

At the end of practice Tuesday morning, he lingers in American’s Bender Arena, bouncing from one television interview to the next. The questions are all the same, searching for an explanation behind his unique and uncanny ability to win games in the most improbable of circumstances: with less than a second remaining on the clock.

All the attention honestly makes him a little bit uncomfortable.

“I’m an under-the-radar guy,” American point guard Pee Wee Gardner says. “Buzzer-beaters are buzzer-beaters, but the wins are more important.”

In the past 32 days, a stretch dating to Dec. 20, the Eagles have won five games. Three of them have featured a go-ahead basket by Gardner in the final second of regulation.

First, there was the scooping left-handed layup with 0.5 seconds left in a 46-45 victory over Mount St. Mary’s. Then the deep 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds on the clock to beat Lehigh on Jan. 14. Then, most recently, the floating bank shot with 0.3 seconds left Saturday at Lafayette.

While it’s not technically a buzzer-beater, Gardner also scored five points in the final 13 seconds of a Jan. 10 game against Colgate, including the tying layup with 3.4 seconds remaining. American went on to win in double overtime, 71-69.

“Pee Wee’s a player, man,” senior guard John Schoof said. “I’m always looking to get it to Pee Wee in those situations because I know he’ll make the right play, whether it’s getting a bucket or finding the open guy. We all have confidence in him that he’ll make the right play, no matter what it is.”

Gardner’s late-game heroics are nothing new. As a freshman at Stephen F. Austin, he hit a game-winning 3-pointer with one second left against Texas State. Last season, after transferring and sitting out the 2012-13 campaign, he made another jumper — this one also with one second on the clock — to force overtime against UMBC.

“But I don’t really care about those. Or the last two, honestly,” Gardner said. “I just care about the wins. In the win column, that’s where it shows up most importantly.”

There’s no secret to routinely hitting game-winners, Gardner said. It takes a mix of confidence, energy, and, above all else, competitiveness.

“Just the fight in me,” he said.

With Gardner’s buzzer-beating ability and recent success, second-year coach Mike Brennan has grown accustomed to drawing up plays for him in the final seconds of a close game. In most cases, Brennan actually tries not to overdesign a play, or make things too complicated. His main goal is to spread the floor, give Gardner options, and let things unfold from there.

“I’m not surprised [by Gardner’s buzzer-beaters], just because he made plays constantly all year last year,” Brennan said. “We were winning close game after close game, and he’s making play after play in the final minutes of the game. It just didn’t have to be a buzzer-beater. This year it is. And he’s getting a lot more attention for it.”

After winning the Patriot League and appearing in the NCAA tournament last season, American was picked to finish atop the conference again this year, despite the loss of talented big man Tony Wroblicky, who now plays professionally in Germany.

The Eagles (11-7, 4-2) have regularly fielded a smaller lineup this season — 6-foot-5 guard Jesse Reed usually takes the opening tip — and they have struggled on the boards.

Yet they enter Wednesday night’s game against Boston in a tie for second place in the Patriot League, a conference that players say is as wide-open as ever.

“We knew the league was going to be tough coming into the year, and it’s proven to be,” Schoof said. “Every game’s been down to the wire.”

It’s fortunate, then, that the Eagles have a player who thrives under those circumstances — even though he would prefer to forego the stardom that comes with them.

“I don’t like to be the one man out, have people single me out,” Gardner says. “I just try to do anything I can for the team.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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