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Friday, June 21, 2024
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Men's Hoops sweeps PL weekend

The AU Men's Basketball team entered its final home weekend of Patriot League season play hoping to find the home-court advantage that has evaded them for much of the year.

The Eagles, who lost just once at Bender Arena last season, have surrendered four home losses this season. The team's latest, an 86-83 overtime heartbreaker to Lafayette, sent the Eagles into a funk, where despite going 2-for-2, the Eagles rarely looked sharp, physically or mentally. Their two wins came against bottom-dwellers Army and Navy.

The Eagles found the home cooking they hungered for, first beating Holy Cross 65-51 on Friday night, then eluding Colgate 65-62 on Sunday afternoon. The Eagles (14-12, 8-4) swept both season series with the wins, rose to two games above .500 for the first time this season, and secured at worst a No. 4 seed in the PL tournament, which commences two weekends from now.

Friday night, AU soundly defeated the Crusaders, spurred on by a raucous season-high Bender crowd of 3,217, who arrived early perhaps because of AU's "Phil Bender" promotion, but stayed late of their own volition.

Having lost a heartbreaker before a previous season-high crowd against Lafayette on Jan. 30, the Eagles' convincing victory over the archrival Crusaders, who beat AU in PL title games in 2002 and 2003, may have won some fans back and re-energized some players.

"We needed that one," said AU head coach Jeff Jones afterward. "I think the combination of Holy Cross and the big crowd got us going. I don't know if we played well, but we sure played hard. That's something we've been missing."

While AU and Holy Cross entered the matchup in fourth and fifth place, not second and first like in 2002 and 2003, the teams and the crowd, not to mention the television cameras, still combined for a big-time atmosphere.

No play was bigger than junior guard Jason Thomas' alley-oop dunk off a lob from senior Andres Rodriguez with 7:22 remaining in the game, which sent the near-capacity crowd into pandemonium.

The dunk pushed the AU lead to 43-38, and followed a Crusader possession where guard Kevin Hamilton, who led all scorers with 16 points, missed a three-pointer that would have tied the game at 41. It also revenged a crucial missed dunk by Thomas against Lafayette, a mistake that haunted the Eagles when Lafayette came from behind to win in overtime.

Most importantly, the play rattled Holy Cross, who called timeout immediately after, and helped spur a 15-4 run AU that turned a 38 tie into a 53-42 lead.

"In a game where points are hard to come by, Jason's dunk and a couple of layups we got here and there" were a huge help, Jones said. "I knew what they were thinking [on the dunk], and I was saying 'no, no, no' the whole time, but I think that it was big."

Holy Cross tried to hang around, and closed to within six points after guard Jave Meade sunk a pair of free throws with 1:38 remaining. The Eagles then outscored the Crusaders 10-2 to close regulation, shooting 6-for-6 from the foul line in that span.

Friday was Thomas' first start in three games since getting relegated to the bench for freshman guard Linas Lekavicius. In the two games, Thomas performed like a player who wanted his starting spot back, scoring 14 points in a win against Navy on Feb. 10 and 16 points in a loss to Lehigh on Feb. 13. Friday, he co-led AU's scoring with senior forward Jernavis Draughn, who each scored 12 points.

"I wasn't so much [ticked] off about it," Thomas said. "You just suck it up, and try to put your aggression on the court. All I asked is for a chance."

AU's victory helped level the tide in a series that until this year has flowed the Crusaders' way. AU won only 1-of-7 all-time meetings between the two clubs before this year, a 72-49 drubbing of the Crusaders at Bender in 2003. This year, AU swept the series, in what is becoming among the biggest of PL rivalries.

"It's definitely a rivalry," Thomas said. "Ever since my freshman year [2001-02] when they beat us in the championship. That's been key, that game sparked it."

Jones agreed.

"Students know that this is the team the last two years in the Patriot League the last two years that's won the league, and more importantly to them maybe, has had our number," he said. "I think it's good, I like seeing it. I also think it's a respectful rivalry, that's based probably in my relation with [Holy Cross head coach] Ralph Willard."

To cap a banner night for the Eagles, Jones registered his 200th coaching win.

Two days later, Jones' 201st win arrived in less impressive fashion, as AU survived a last-second three-point attempt from guard Mark Linebaugh to hold on to a 65-62 victory.

With Lehigh (17-8, 10-2) defeating Lafayette (18-7, 9-3) 78-72 and Bucknell (13-12, 9-3) defeating Army 75-25, AU no longer has a chance at the No. 1 seed, because Lehigh has the head-to-head tiebreak. But two wins next weekend would guarantee AU at least a tie for third.

Seniors Rodriguez and Draughn scored 17 and 12 points, respectively on AU's Senior Day. Unless the Eagles advance to the PL final and are the higher seed in the game, Rodriguez and Draughn completed their Bender Arena careers on Sunday afternoon.

"It's a fun game to play," Rodriguez said afterward. "You get all emotional. It [is] maybe the last game you play on your home court. But I didn't try to think about it that much once I got on the court."

Apparently Rodriguez had the right attitude. He led all players not only in scoring, but also in assists, with seven. And most importantly Rodriguez, who has struggled with clutch foul shooting this year, sank 9-of-10 foul shots in the final five minutes, keeping what had once been a 44-32 lead from completely dissipating.

"It's a lot of hard work paying off, thank God," Rodriguez said of his effort from the foul line. "Day after day you shoot free throws. If you practice, you're going to feel more comfortable on the line and make them - it's all mental."

Freshman guard Andre Ingram, who would've likely finished as AU's leading scorer were it not for Rodriguez's late foul-shooting, led all rebounders with 10 to go with 15 points. Ingram, who figuratively and literally is AU's new guard, praised the old guard after the game.

"You have to love having guys like Andres and Jernavis on your team," Ingram said. "When you come in from high school, you're used to being in a different position. You need someone to help with the transition. They did that."

With regular season contests at Army and Lafayette remaining, plus the PL Tournament, Rodriguez, who has 190 assists this season, needs just six more to secure second place on AU's season assists record list. Rodriguez holds the AU and PL single game assist record through a 19-assist performance at Navy on Jan. 14.

Center Andrew Zidar led Colgate with 15 points, including three three-pointers, while guard Mark Linebaugh, whose long game-tying three-point attempt fell well short, finished with 11 points.

As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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