American University’s men’s basketball team (2-5) dropped its third game in a row Wednesday night in a 60-49 loss to Loyola Maryland (4-8) at Loyola’s Reitz Arena.
In a first half that can only be described as a “rock fight” between the Eagles and the Greyhounds, both teams were unable to consistently put the ball in the basket. Despite the team’s mutual offensive woes, Loyola seemed to be in control for much of the first half, leading for most of the first 20 minutes of the game. The 1-3-1 zone that Loyola employed for stretches confounded AU, with AU turning the ball over and not getting any good looks, shooting a dreadful 9-32 from the field in the half and 5-17 from deep.
“We weren't really prepared for the zone. The zone is tricky and we just didn't have our group together to practice on both days this week,” head coach Mike Brennan said postgame. “The effort was there, we did great defensively. We just weren't prepared properly for that zone and that's my fault. If we knew what we were supposed to do against the zone and had practiced it for a couple days, I would have felt much better, and they could have come out more confident in attacking it.”
But AU was able to stay in the game in the first half with pure hustle and defense. Loyola, despite locking up the Eagles on defense, was unable to build a substantial lead, shooting an abysmal 10-34 from the field itself in the half. The rebounding issues that plagued the Eagles in last weekend’s games against Navy were nowhere to be seen, with Loyola unable to capitalize on many second-chance opportunities. With timely 3-pointers from sophomore guard Ben Lubarsky and junior forward Connor Nelson in the final minutes of the first half, AU was able to go into halftime with the game tied 27-27.
But, the start of the second half looked almost identical to Saturday’s loss against Navy. Loyola went on a 16-3 run to start the half, coming out with a high level of intensity that the Eagles were unable to match. Turnovers from the Eagles led to fast break opportunities for Loyola, and what was once a tied game became a double-digit Loyola lead that AU was unable to overcome. The upbeat yelling and chanting from the Loyola bench were audible through the ESPN+ stream, and were indicative of the momentum shift that took place in the second half.
AU finished the game shooting only 28 percent from the field, 23 percent from 3-point range and accumulated 18 turnovers. While Loyola did not do much better, finishing the game shooting 38 percent from the field and 20 percent from three, that spurt of offense it received to begin the second half was enough to carry the team throughout the rest of the game. AU would only score 22 points in the second half, their second-lowest scoring output in a half this season.
"The group is resilient. They fought back,” Brennan said. “We should have everybody for practice on Thursday and Friday. It's a tough situation for our guys, playing five games in eight days. They're fighting and working so hopefully we just keep improving."
Senior guard Stacy Beckton Jr. and freshman forward Johnny O’Neil returned after missing each of the past weekend's games against Navy, but neither of the Eagles’ second- and third-leading scorers were able to find a rhythm offensively in their first game in a month. Beckton finished the game shooting 1-8 from the field, and O’Neil was 0-5, with both missing each of their four 3-point attempts.
Senior guard Jamir Harris was the only Eagle to finish in double figures, scoring 18 points, 11 of which came in the first half, keeping AU in the game while his teammates were struggling. After scoring 23 and 33 points in each of the first two games against Loyola this season, it became clear early on that the Greyhounds had focused their defensive game plan on keeping Harris in check, with their guards chasing Harris around the court frantically, and he was unable to get clean looks for most of the game.
On the other side of the ball, AU did a good job overall on Loyola’s star player and leading scorer Santi Aldama, only allowing nine shot attempts and 13 points. But role players for the Greyhounds like Isaiah Hart, who lit up the Eagles for a season high 20 points, as well as contributions from Alonso Faure, Golden Dike and Luke Johnson, were enough to pick up the slack.
While he did not score much, Aldama was able to affect the game in a multitude of ways, protecting the rim with three blocks, and controlling the glass with 10 rebounds. The four big men for Loyola (Aldama, Dike, Faure and Brent Holcombe) combined for 27 points and 21 rebounds, outperforming and overwhelming the AU frontcourt of junior forwards Josh Alexander and Christian Lorng. Though Alexander was able to grab a season-high nine rebounds, he couldn’t generate the type offense he had been producing in previous games.
With this defeat, AU lost its third straight game and fifth overall to a team in the South Division of the Patriot League. After leading Loyola in the South Division standings for most of the season despite playing fewer games, the Eagles fell behind the Greyhounds with this loss.
“It's unusual because you're at both the beginning and end of the season,” Brennan said, when talking about the sense of urgency to close the season while only playing seven games so far. “I'm trying to get guys minutes and experience in real situations, while also trying to win important games."
In order to secure one of the eight playoff bids and make the Patriot League tournament that is set to begin March 6, Patriot League teams are currently required to play a minimum of 12 games. Due to their 11 postponements this season, AU has only played seven games. The Eagles only have two more games left scheduled in their regular season, with this weekend’s back-to-back games against Bucknell, bringing them to just nine total games on the year.
According to a tweet from the AU Hoops Podcast, information is expected to come from the Patriot League offices Thursday on whether or not AU could still be eligible for the tournament with only nine games played. Unless unlikely last-minute adjustments are made to either the schedule or the rulebook, it looks as though the only thing that will be at stake for the Eagles this weekend is closing out this turbulent season with a couple wins.