AU men’s basketball stifles St. Francis 83-73
Eagles snap 7-game slide with an emphatic win at home
All the Eagles wanted for Christmas was a home win, and Santa delivered.
Coming off a seven-game losing streak during an eight-game road trip, the 2-7 American University men’s basketball team won their first game back at home, and their last until after Christmas, against the 3-4 St. Francis Red Flash 83-73.
The game was a crucial win for AU to avoid extending their losing streak into their upcoming road trip, and three Eagles led AU’s phenomenal performance.
Sophomore Johnny O’Neil notched five rebounds, two assists and a block to complement his team-high 22 points on 8-for-9 shooting from the field. O’Neil gave the Red Flash a masterclass on efficiency, as he went 5-for-5 from downtown and did not miss a single shot until the second half. “We were on the road for a while, so it felt good coming back to Bender, being in front of the fans, and pulling out a dub,” O’Neil said.
Sophomore Colin Smalls, sporting a face devoid of emotion, could not be bothered by his 20 points, four assists and three steals. Every time the six-foot-two Smalls stole the ball and ran down the court to drive on a player eight inches taller than him, he humbly raced back to pressure the Red Flash with his signature stifling defense.
“I’ve been there before,” Smalls said postgame. “Big plays are part of the game, so it doesn’t really phase me.”
Senior Stacy Beckton Jr. also quietly put up 13 points and drew five fouls. The Eagles’ leading scorer this season struggled from both the field (4-for-11) and the free-throw line (3-for-6) but Beckton’s steady defensive presence and 6 rebounds sapped the Red Flash of its speed.
AU won the tip-off to open the game and then traded baskets with St. Francis for a few minutes. The Eagles pulled ahead when O’Neil, who proceeded to hit three 3-pointers without a miss before ten minutes had passed, caught fire.
AU went on a 12-0 run in the middle of the first half, but their success during this stretch came even more on the defensive end. St. Francis couldn’t buy a bucket, as every shot attempt was either contested or outright rejected by a flurry of outstretched Eagle arms, resulting in repeated turnovers and rimouts for the Red Flash.
As the first half came to a close, St. Francis managed to pull back within reach, but a Smalls spin-move assist to graduate student Marvin Bragg left the Eagles with a 43-40 lead going into the second half.
After the Eagles’ blazing-fast first half, the second half turned into a slugfest between the two teams. AU and St. Francis combined for ten fewer points in the second half, as both teams ramped up their defense and failed to maintain their offensive efficiency.
St. Francis kept with AU for the majority of the second half and even managed to take the lead, but senior Connor Nelson soared in to save the Eagles. Nelson stole the lead back from the Red Flash with a jumper, which he immediately followed up with a three to put the Eagles up 58-53. Though St. Francis tried to stay in it, Smalls’ sneaky drives, O’Neil’s continued offensive excellence and Bragg’s contributions off the bench were a sign of what was to come. St. Francis was in trouble.
With 3:16 left in the game, O’Neil was fouled on a drive and stood under the basket wondering how many free throws he was about to take. The ball swirled around the hoop for what felt like ten seconds before finally dropping, causing the AU crowd — especially a student dressed from head to toe in a Santa Claus costume — to erupt in thunderous cheers.
With little time remaining, Beckton’s two missed free throws nearly gave St. Francis a late comeback opportunity, but AU grabbed the rebound and the Red Flash fouled Nelson. Nelson made the first free throw, but when he missed the second, AU flexed their rebounding prowess once again and put the ball back into the hands of Nelson.
Upon sinking both this time, Nelson looked like the Eagles’ big late-game hero before Beckton swooped in and drained a buzzer-beating three at the end of the shot clock. To punctuate his 20-point outing, Smalls dribbled out the clock until the buzzer confirmed AU’s 83-73 victory.
Head coach Mike Brennan said that Wednesday’s win over St. Francis was a product of AU’s offensive and defensive schemes finally clicking.
“To be honest, not a ton [changed] offensively or defensively, it’s just little things on both ends that we weren’t doing,” Brennan said. “We just needed each guy to do just a little more on both ends, and then it affects every single possession.”
The Eagles faced Mount St. Mary’s on Saturday and won’t play in Bender Arena again until Dec. 28 against Siena.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the score in the headline.