Despite the abundance of talent and experience on this year’s Eagles squad, AU was unable to achieve its ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament, as it lost to the Bucknell Bison 64-59 in the Patriot League Quarterfinals on Thursday night inside Bender Arena.
This was supposed to be ‘the year’ for AU men’s basketball. The team was picked to finish 3rd in the Patriot League, added Minnesota transfer Jamir Harris at the beginning of the season and returned Patriot League Player of the Year Sa’eed Nelson and a slew of other veteran players.
After struggling offensively in both a win and a loss against Bucknell (14-19, 8-10 PL) during Patriot League regular season play, AU (16-14, 12-6 PL) again couldn’t find its rhythm against the Bison.
Much of AU’s struggles offensively were simply a result of botched wide-open opportunities, as the team shot just 36.2 percent from the field, 21.7 percent from behind the 3-point line, and 60 percent from the free throw line.
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” senior forward Yilret Yiljep said. “The shots just didn’t fall tonight.”
Despite not clicking offensively, AU went into the locker room for halftime only down 30-29 in large part due to lockdown defense from senior guard Sa’eed Nelson, who finished the game with five steals.
In the second half, AU’s offensive struggles continued, and became more problematic than in the first half, as Bucknell began to gain traction on the offensive end, especially in the post.
“[The Bucknell post players] had us chasing and they were getting the looks that they wanted,” AU head coach Mike Brennan said. “We didn’t really have anything to go to to switch it up.”
Bucknell bigs Paul Newman, John Meeks, and Kahlil Spear shot a combined 13-19 from the field while scoring 29 points.
Despite allowing Bucknell’s post players to dominate the second half, AU kept the game within striking distance, trailing by two points with just three minutes left to play.
“I thought our guys really fought,” Brennan said.
AU’s stick-to-itiveness throughout the game paid dividends and put redshirt sophomore guard Jamir Harris in a position to do what he does best down the stretch: shoot 3’s.
Harris, who scored 15 points on the night, drained a 3-point shot to put AU up 53-52 with 2:43 left on the game clock, and hit another one with 1:29 remaining, which tied the game at 58.
Despite Harris’ clutch shots, Bucknell returned every punch AU threw in the closing moments, and was able to pull away in the final minute of the contest.
“We just didn’t make enough plays at the end [to win],” Brennan said. “Whatever shortcomings [there were], it’s on me. [The players] worked their butts off this year...I appreciate everything.”
Although the Eagles will not be making an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, there is reason to believe that the team will receive an invite to play in a lower level postseason event such as the Collegeinsider.com Tournament. If the invite comes in AU’s direction, it seems likely that the team will accept.
“We’d love to keep playing,” Brennan said. “I’d love to do anything I can to get more games for Sa’eed.”
Even if more games don’t come in the Eagles’ direction, Brennan is optimistic about the future of AU men’s basketball.
“We’re in a good spot, we finished second [in the Patriot League],” Brennan said. “We’ve got a bunch of older guys that’ll be back next year. We’ve got some younger guys and new guys that watched Sa’eed play [and learned from his greatness].”