Men’s basketball sweeps Bucknell, clinches fifth seed in PL Tournament
Eagles will face Army on the road next Saturday in the quarterfinals
With the fewest games played in the Patriot League this season, the American University men’s basketball team was expected to be ineligible for the postseason tournament this year as recently as Wednesday. When the Patriot League announced Thursday that it was expanding the tournament to its usual format with all 10 teams, the Eagles stood last in the standings. But after completing their sweep over Bucknell (4-6) this weekend with a dominant 81-68 victory at Bender Arena, the Eagles (4-5) were able to move all the way up and clinch the fifth seed. For head coach Mike Brennan, the absurdity of the last few days have been a testament to his team's resilience in what has already been a bizarre season for his players.
“It’s been par for the course to be honest with you. These guys, since last March, they haven’t known what the next week is going to bring,” Brennan said postgame. “‘Are we going to be back on campus?’ ‘Are we going to be practicing?’ ‘Are we going to be playing games?’ So they’re used to, at the very last second, finding out what’s going to happen and what their fate is going to be. And I think they’ve done a great job of compartmentalizing and just taking advantage of the time that we do have on the court.”
The Eagles completed their sweep of Bucknell this weekend on the backs of another balanced offensive effort, replicating their performance in Saturday’s road win, with multiple players scoring in double-digits and crisp ball movement propeling the team to a season-high 20 assists.
After struggling in Saturday’s game, senior guard Jamir Harris bounced back to score an efficient 24 points, going 9-13 from the field and knocking down five of his eight 3-point attempts. That’s the type of performance people have come to expect from Harris with his stellar play this year. Harris is currently tied for the most 3-pointers made per game in all of Division 1 men’s basketball.
“Our team does a good job of moving the ball and trying to get him his looks,” Brennan said. “And then he does a good job of moving the ball and cutting and not just being a one-dimensional, guardable guy.”
Junior forward Connor Nelson had his best offensive output of the season after recording a career-high 12 rebounds Saturday, scoring a season-high 12 points and knocking down two 3-pointers. For Nelson, specifically, it has been tough to get into a rhythm after only playing in two of the team’s four games before the 27-day layoff. But this weekend has been a return to last season’s form.
“It’s been tough. These past two games I finally felt like I had a rhythm and was making an impact out there,” Nelson said. “The first couple games, I just felt kind of out of place on the court. I didn’t think I was playing to my ability. I don’t want to make excuses with COVID[-19] because all my teammates are going through it too, but having the breaks have affected me and the team too.”
Despite not shooting the ball as well as last year, Nelson has been able to affect the game in a multitude of ways. Along with his rebounding, where Nelson currently leads the entire team with seven per game this year, he also leads the team in steals with 2.7 per game, doing the dirty work for the Eagles.
“My shooting and everything, my percentages right now are pretty low. So coach, pregame yesterday was like, ‘just exert your energy in other places and try to make a difference on the court,’” Nelson said. “So my goal was just I’m just going to make my presence felt on the defensive end and on the glass and try to go get every rebound. I wanted to have a presence out there and not just feel like I was just running up and down the court.”
Sunday was also senior day for the Eagles, and senior guard Stacy Beckton Jr. was honored during a pregame ceremony. Beckton, who struggled in his first game back against Loyola on Wednesday, was able to continue his offensive prowess from Saturday’s game, with an easy 13 points; which combined with Saturday’s output, gives him an efficient 30 points for the weekend on 9-15 shooting.
“I definitely struggled,” Beckton said. “It was just big for me to get in a groove and just bring the guys along, and show my senior leadership in these last two games and how big these last two games were down the stretch to put us in a good position in the Patriot League tournament.”
After playing five games in the last eight days, clinching the fifth seed in the tournament will give the Eagles six days off to prepare for their quarterfinal playoff game on the road against Army (11-8) Saturday, March 6. For Beckton, who hasn’t won a Patriot League playoff game so far in his career, he sees an opportunity for this team to go far based on the resilience and chemistry they have shown so far this season.
“I’m definitely excited,” Beckton said. “This is a team where everyone wants to see each other succeed, no matter if one person is playing and one person is not playing.”