The 2021 American University men’s basketball season came to a close Saturday, with the Eagles (4-6) losing 89-66 on the road to Army (12-8) in the Patriot League Quarterfinals.
The Eagles and Black Knights both started the game off hot, going bucket-for-bucket in the first eight minutes of the game. AU did not play great defense against Army to start the game, but four 3-pointers from the Eagles plus six quick points from junior forward Josh Alexander in the first eight minutes kept them in it. But while AU’s shooting began to cool off as the Black Knight’s defensive intensity increased, the Eagles’ defense failed to follow suit.
The Eagles gave up wide-open, uncontested 3-pointers to Tucker Blackwell and Jared Cross, which helped Army build its lead to double-digits while AU’s offense sputtered. Open threes weren’t the only things AU gave up, as fastbreak opportunities, easy driving lanes and backdoor cuts allowed the Black Knights to get layups with little resistance. The Black Knights would finish the game shooting 64 percent from the field.
“They’re a good team. They run their stuff, they're solid, they play hard,” AU head coach Mike Brennan said postgame. “It’s obvious they’ve played 10 more games than us. Regardless, they shot well and executed on both ends of the court.”
Eventually, Army’s first-half scoring would begin to slow down, but AU was unable to capitalize. For much of the regular season, AU’s offense was only as good as its ability to take care of the ball and not turn it over. That trend continued Saturday as AU had 10 turnovers in the first half, stalling its attempts to get back into the game. While some of the turnovers can be attributed to Army’s potent defense, most were unforced errors, bad passes, dropped passes and generally careless, avoidable mistakes. AU would go into halftime trailing by 18 points, giving up 47 points to an Army team that finished just sixth in points per game in the Patriot League.
Whatever hopes the Eagles had for a big comeback seemed to die within the first five minutes of the second half. Within the first five minutes, Army would extend its lead to 25 points, putting the game effectively out of reach. And while the Eagles’ offense would improve later in the second half, they spent most of their time trading baskets with the Black Knights and were unable to string together enough stops to get back into the game.
The Eagles would go on a short run to cut the lead to 14 points with three minutes left, employing full-court defensive pressure to force turnovers and baskets. But it was too little too late for the Eagles, and layups and free throws allowed the Black Knights to rebuild their lead back to more than 20 to end the game.
Senior guards Jamir Harris and Stacy Beckton Jr. finished the game leading the Eagles in scoring with 18 points and 13 points, respectively. Junior forward Josh Alexander started the game hot, but was unable to keep his production up, finishing with just 9 points.
Senior forward Alex King and junior guard Josh Caldwell led the Black Knights in scoring with 20 and 17 points, with Cross, Blackwell and Nick Finke coming off the bench to combine for 32 points. AU players Matt Rogers, Colin Smalls and Patriot League Rookie of the Year Johnny O’Neil, who had provided valuable contributions off the bench all season, only combined for 12 points.
Army will advance to face Loyola Maryland (5-10) at home in the Patriot League semifinals Wednesday, after the Greyhounds went on the road and upset a top-seeded Navy team earlier Saturday.
For the Eagles, this is the end of a bizarre season with too many stops and starts to gain any real momentum and continuity. Regardless, Brennan expressed pride in his players and their ability to perform individually and collectively throughout a difficult season.
“It was a really challenging year mentally, as well as physically because you can't just take two weeks off and come right back and run around,” Brennan said. “I give our guys credit for sticking with it throughout the entire year since last March. We've had no idea what was going to happen from day-to-day since March. We asked them to make tons and tons of sacrifices and they did. So I give our guys a ton of credit.”
This loss now marks the fifth-straight year that men’s basketball finished the season without a win in the Patriot League tournament under Brennan. And while this strange season came to an end, there are still promising signs for next year.
In October, the NCAA granted all Division I winter sports athletes an extra year of eligibility, meaning that seniors like Harris and Beckton could come back for another season if they choose to. Seniors Marvin Bragg and Jesse Little both opted out of this season, meaning that they are also eligible for a return next year if they decide to continue their careers as Eagles.
With juniors like Alexander and Connor Nelson returning for their senior years, and freshmen like O’Neil, Smalls and Rogers continuing to develop, AU could end up being a very talented and surprisingly deep and experienced team going into a 2021-22 season that is hopefully less impacted by a global pandemic.
"I'm excited about the group,” Brennan said. “If we can just get in the gym consistently, I feel good about the progress that they all will be able to make."
There is also a version of next season where those seniors do not return, and expectations are tempered, with the potential for a rebuild focused on the development of the underclassmen. There are a lot of unknown variables at play that will factor into what next year’s Eagles team will look like, and what the expectations will be.