A win for AU Men’s Basketball Friday night could’ve been a landmark point for the entire program.
With a season-high crowd of 1,708 on hand, AU had Patriot League leaders Lafayette on the ropes and a tie for the PL lead in sight. And with many fans getting their first look at AU basketball, a win could’ve done wonders at the gate for a team that has never had championship-level support.
But it couldn’t get it done. First it let the Leopards back into a game that at 26-13 was almost over before it started. When Lafayette got its first second-half lead, a 48-47 edge, AU responded, and never trailed again in regulation. But Lafayette hung around, through a missed dunk by AU junior guard Jason Thomas, poor foul shooting from senior guard Andres Rodriguez, silly fouls and defensive lapses.
The last of those lapses came in the closing seconds of regulation when, while ahead 75-73, AU’s defense lost track of Lafayette forward Rob Dill. Guard Justin DeBerry found Dill underneath the basket for a game-tying dunk and a chance at overtime, where Lafayette won 86-83.
In being punished for giving Lafayette new life to the Leopards, two points grew painfully clear. AU has the ability and passion to become a championship-caliber PL program. But they’ve yet to learn to focus it.
“It should’ve never come down to free throws,” said AU head coach Jeff Jones of the final minutes. “Our guys will have to live with the defensive mistakes and mental errors that occurred from the five-minute mark until that point.”
“We played hard for 40 minutes ... but we didn’t close at the end,” freshman guard Andre Ingram said. “That’s all that matters.”
In that statement, Ingram shows knowledge beyond his years.
An AU win and Rodriguez is praised for a gutsy performance in which he played 39 minutes on a freshly sprained ankle, notched assists, and yielded one turnover .
A win and Thomas is praised for his defensive work on DeBerry, the PL’s leading scorer, whose 15 points were about the most difficult he’s scored all season.
And had AU held on, workhorse senior forward Jernavis Draughn’s double-double performance (15 points, 11 rebounds) is the postgame talk, as well as junior forward Raimondas Petrauskas team-high 16 points.
Instead, talk centered around Lafayette’s late-game heroics. Because while AU is finally learning the importance of all 40, and sometimes all 45, minutes, Friday night Lafayette taught AU that every minute is important - the final ones just more so.
There was DeBerry who, despite a frustrating game, made the big pass to Dill to tie the game. There was of course Dill, whose game-tying dunk capped off a 15-point second half.
Then there was guard Winston Davis, who overcame 0-of-5 shooting from three-point range in regulation to nail two huge three-pointers and score eight total overtime points to seal the deal.
“He did what good players do,” Jones said of Davis. “He didn’t get that many open looks, but when they came, he cashed in. The big key is ... the two big threes, the pullup, came in the flow of the offense.”
Davis took what was given to him, something AU couldn’t do, and not for lack of effort. Thomas’ missed dunk was almost a case of too much effort. The same could go for the final play of regulation, where AU was so anxious to stop DeBerry that it correctly double-teamed the guard around a pick, but forgot about Dill.
The same could be said for the crowd - the loudest in Bender since the 2002 PL championship - that almost ruined the evening when a fan threw a bottle on the court after Dill’s tying dunk. The referees restrained themselves and did not give AU a team technical. But fans that knew the magnitude of this game held their breath, while the large portion of fans that didn’t laughed.
The Eagles can still contend for the PL title, beating Army 60-46 at Bender on Sunday to go 11-10 and 5-2 PL. But the road is uphill with games at Bucknell, Lehigh and Lafayette, potentially all becoming must-win matches.
If the Eagles have any shot, they need the same passion that they had against Lafayette. But they also must learn to play with a focused fury.