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Friday, June 21, 2024
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Lehigh strips AU of NCAA dream

The AU Men's Basketball team's third-straight trip to the Patriot League final proved even less charmed than it's first two.

While the Eagles' PL championship losses to Holy Cross in 2002 and 2003 were disheartening, neither equaled the cruelty of Sunday's 59-57 loss at Lehigh, which again cost the Eagles the league championship and their first ever trip to the Div. I NCAA tournament.

After AU senior point guard Andres Rodriguez scored the last 10 points of a 12-5 run that tied the score at 57, Lehigh guard Jose Olivero sank the Mountain Hawks' game-winning jumper with 3.9 seconds remaining.

Lehigh (20-10, 10-4), which like AU (18-13, 10-4) snuck under many radar screens in the fall, won its first Patriot League title with Olivero's shot. This is Lehigh's first tournament bid sine 1988, when they won the now-extinct East Coast Conferenc title.

"I'm so proud of these guys and what they were able to accomplish," said Lehigh head coach Billy Taylor. "They didn't get much credit at any point this year, but this team stayed together."

"We all saw on television all week, every game this week has been real close," said Lehigh guard Kyle Neptune. "We hoped it would happen to us. Right now it hasn't set in yet."

Nor has it set in for the Eagles, who must have thought momentum favored them after coming back to tie. With AU down 57-54, Rodriguez tied the score by driving down the right side of the lane, making a layup, drawing a foul from Olivero and sinking the ensuing free throw with 21 seconds left.

Olivero caught the inbound on Lehigh's next and final possession and did the rest himself. After bobbling the ball and nearly losing it to AU junior guard Jason Thomas, Olivero down to the rim and hit a tough floating jumper, sending most of the 3,668 fans at Lehigh's Stabler Arena into delirium.

"After [the ball] hit off my leg, it threw every thing in scramble mode," Olivero said. "I just gathered myself, got the ball, and looked toward the rim."

AU's ensuing inbound found junior forward Matej Cresnik, while Rodriguez curiously ran upcourt. Cresnik looked to pass and then nearly traveled before dribbling upcourt, pulling up from about 30 feet and missing wide.

Common basketball logic suggested that AU would put the ball in Rodriguez's hands and let him dribble upcourt to create a shot.

"They didn't do what I thought they were going to do," said Lehigh leading score Austen Rowland, who guarded Rodriguez on the final play. "Once [Rodriguez] was on the other side of the half-court line, I just wanted to focus on him not getting the ball."

AU head coach Jeff Jones said, "Obviously that wasn't how the play was supposed to pan out. We were looking to get the ball to Andres on the second pass."

Instead Rodriguez finished his final game, one he singlehandedly kept his team in, quietly. He was still the game's leading scorer with 16 points. And characteristic of his two-and-a-half-year career at AU, Rodriguez expressed graciousness for the title opportunity.

"It's really good when you go to the championship three times," Rodriguez said. "It's a dream come true to play in these types of games."

Jones, who grew teary-eyed talking about Rodriguez's career, said, "He's meant an awful lot to the program. He came in just wanting to be on the basketball team. [In 2002 and 2003] other guys got the headlines, the shots, the notoriety. But the coaches knew that he made those individuals a team."

In a game with eight ties and 11 lead changes, where every advantage mattered, Rodriguez simply wasn't enough to counter Lehigh's multidimensional attack. Rowland, PL Player of the Year, was held in check with 14 points. But between forward Jason Mgebroff's and Neptune's the combined 19 points of their total 24 points in the first half, and clutch baskets from guards Olivero and Ra Tiah in the second half, Lehigh proved more versatile than AU.

Freshman guard Andre Ingram had 10 tough points. Senior forward Jernavis Draughn struggled in his last game, scoring nine points but shooting only 2 of 9 from the floor, missing several close-range chances.

Lehigh controlled the pace of the game after the beginning stages, when AU built an 18-11 lead. Letting Rodriguez have space but not penetration the Mountain Hawks kept the game in the halfcourt. AU did lead Lehigh in fast-break points, but only 8-2.

Lehigh led 30-29 at halftime. AU's last lead was 41-39 after Cresnik sank a pair of free throws with 10:51 remaining.

The Mountain hawks advanced to the NCAA play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, where they lost soundly to Florida A&M, 72-57.

AU reached the final through quarterfinal and semifinal victories over Army and Colgate on March 6 and 7 in Upper Marlboro, Md.

In their 65-55 semifinal win over Colgate on, the Eagles rolled off 17 unanswered points to turn a 25-20 first-half deficit into a 37-25 second-half lead, one they wouldn't yield.

AU's two seniors, Draughn and Rodriguez, led the Eagles with 16 and 15 points respectively, while junior forward Raimondas Petrauskas added 10 points.

Colgate came closest to regaining the lead when an 8-0 run closed the score to 46-43 with 8:14 left. But Draughn and Petrauskas answered, scoring four points each to push the margin to 54-43.

Colgate's Alvin Reed kept the Red Raiders close, hitting a four-point play to close the lead to 56-52 with 2:48 left, and hitting another three-pointer with a minute remaining to make the score 59-55. Reed led all scorers with 18 points.

Against Army, AU jumped out to a 22-3 lead and cruised to a 65-48 quarterfinal win. Rodriguez led the Eagles with 16 points. Thomas and Ingram each scored 13 points, and Draughn added 10. Josh Wilson scored 16 points for Army.

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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