- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2015

For more than two weeks, the American men’s basketball team leaned on the late-game heroics of point guard Pee Wee Gardner, who hit three buzzer-beaters in a span of five games.

But when John Schoof stood on the baseline Monday night, ready to inbound the ball with 3.1 seconds left and the Eagles down by two, he didn’t look for Gardner. Instead, his glance shifted deep to Charlie Jones, then to Jesse Reed, then back to Jones, who was charging back toward half-court. Schoof slinged the ball to the sophomore, who threw it up at the hoop and watched it fall harmlessly short as the buzzer rang.

“He got a decent look off it,” Schoof said. “You can’t really ask for much more than that.”

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With a 68-66 loss to Army at Bender Arena, the Eagles have dropped back-to-back games and now find themselves in the thick of an incredibly muddled Patriot League. The conference features a two-way tie at the top and four-way ties for third and seventh place. All of the league’s 10 teams have between three and six conference wins.

It’s a remarkable logjam, even for a conference with a recent history of them.

“This is league play — all the games are going to be two-point games,” American coach Mike Brennan said. “We’ve just got to do all the little things to make sure we’re on the winning side. We’ve just got to keep improving.”

The Eagles trailed by as many nine points in the first half Monday but used an early surge to pull ahead after the break, building a 57-49 lead with 6:31 left in the game. Then, as the clock reached the two-minute mark, the Black Knights furiously began to close the gap.

A 3-pointer by Tanner Plomb tied the score at 66, and a leaning bank shot by Dylan Cox gave Army the lead with only four seconds remaining.

“You’ve just got to give them credit,” Gardner said. “That last shot was a tough shot, fading away from the basket. That was great defense. You can’t ask for anything else.”

Plomb led all scorers with 26 points, including a two-handed alley-oop in the first half, while Army’s Kyle Wilson finished with 16.

With starting center Zach Elcano sidelined because of a foot injury, the Eagles were forced to field an even smaller lineup than usual. Kevin Panzer, a 6-foot-9 senior, started the game but quickly got into foul trouble and played only 13 minutes. Marko Vasic, who is listed at 6 feet 5, played center for much of the game.

American’s lack of size and depth was problematic on the defensive end, especially against Army’s 6-foot-10 center, Kevin Ferguson. Its Princeton-style offense, meanwhile, ran relatively smoothly. The quickness and balance of potential shooters helped space the floor, resulting in backdoor cuts and a number of easy layups.

Schoof paced the Eagles (11-9, 4-4) with 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Jones finished with 12, and Vasic added 11.

“I thought we played okay offensively, just not good enough tonight,” Brennan said. “We were on the other end of these games a couple times, and now we’re on the losing end. So we keep battling.”

Fortunately for Brennan and the Eagles, their next test is right around the corner, both geographically and chronologically.

On Wednesday, they’ll make the short drive to Annapolis for a meeting with Navy and the beginning of a key conference stretch. Four of their next five games are on the road, and four of their final five are at Bender Arena. In the neck-and-neck Patriot League, any one of them could prove to be a difference-maker.

“Since I’ve been in the league, there’s been teams that have really good players that kind of stand out. But this year, any given night, every night’s going to be a tough game,” said Schoof, one of the team’s four seniors. “From top to bottom, the league is really good. We’ve got to be ready for every game, prepare for every game. Because any night, any opponent, it’s going to be tough.”

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