AU men’s basketball takes down Bucknell
Colin Smalls masterclass helps Eagles notch first Patriot League win over Bison
As an unusually high amount of snow fell on the nation’s capital, the 5-10 American University men’s basketball team grabbed its first Patriot League win in a Sunday afternoon outing against the 3-15 Bucknell Bison 63-55.
Neither Bucknell nor AU had won an in-conference game entering Sunday. Despite not exactly being a marquee matchup, with the two being in the bottom three teams in the Patriot League standings, the game was a treat for loyal AU fans, as it turned out to be a thriller.
The Eagles walked onto the court to “Run This Town” by Jay-Z, but during the first half, it wasn’t clear whether that was a threat or an invitation.
AU struggled offensively to start the game, shooting a tough one-for-six from the three-point line, and Bucknell initially looked like the much stronger offensive team.
It was clear that quick, explosive offense was Bucknell’s bread and butter from the start. The Bison scored with an urgency that seemed to initially startle the Eagles, who quickly fell into an 8-2 hole before a clean-look three from senior Connor Nelson got the offense moving.
The key to Bucknell’s success early in the first half was talking, as the Bison heavily out-communicated the Eagles. Constant talking from everyone on the court during offensive possessions ensured that all bases were covered on defense and the open man was always hit on offense.
But Bucknell’s aggressive offense did not translate to scoring the ball, and the Eagles’ suffocating defense made up for their poor shooting performance.
Sophomore Colin Smalls, who also led the team in scoring with 18 points, guided AU’s defensive effort throughout the entire game. The Eagles, Smalls in particular, were outsized, but they never backed down and ran around screens with ease while clamping down on the Bison.
Another standout defender Sunday was freshman Elijah Stephens. The 5-foot-9 guard found himself guarding Bucknell’s seven-foot center Andre Screen on a number of possessions, and it almost looked like that old picture of Manute Bol and Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues of the Washington Bullets holding a stack of basketballs.
Stephens’ trademark hustle helped him overcome the foot-and-a-quarter height difference, oftentimes forcing Screen to pass out of what should have been a mismatch and easy bucket.
Eventually, the Eagles picked up their offensive slack and never lost the lead throughout the rest of the game. The momentum shift featured a beautiful role-reversal Nelson dime to Stephens through traffic, and AU seized the opportunity to flex their offensive versatility.
The Eagles soared into the second half with brand new energy sparked by an immediate Beckton and-one.
Smalls took control and dropped 16 of his 18 points in the second half, where the Eagles outscored the Bison 37-32 to seal their eight-point victory over the still-last-place Bucknell.
The Bison pushed to come back all throughout the second half, but key contributions from up and down the roster stifled whatever hope Bucknell had to get a win on the board in Patriot League conference play. A huge loose ball hustle save by sophomore Lincoln Ball, a blindingly quick steal by Stephens and a monster offensive rebound from Nelson after a missed buzzer-beating shot kept AU rolling through the second half.
Senior Josh Alexander also played brilliantly throughout the game. Alexander’s struggles with injuries this season have limited him to just 5.1 points in 15.5 minutes per game, but on Sunday he blew up for 12 points in only 13 and a half minutes. Alexander’s presence on the court was electric throughout the game, but nobody felt it more than the poor Bucknell defenders who watched him miss just a single shot from the field.
Alexander’s presence was highlighted by his points per minute stat, a measure of a player’s scoring output relative to their playtime. Alexander led the Eagles with a PPM of .923 — no other player on either team surpassed .600.
“Defense was the key, we were talking, we were alert,” Alexander said. “On offense, it felt like we were getting some good shots, especially on the rolls in the first half.”
Heading into the game, AU held a 15-30 all-time record against Bucknell, but the Eagles blew the Bison out 81-68 when the two teams met last season. The highest-scoring player of that game returning this year for the Eagles was senior Stacy Beckton Jr., who dropped 13 on the Bison last year, while graduate Jamir Harris led the team with 24 points.
The Eagles now hit the road once more to play Army West Point Wednesday at 6 p.m. EST. On paper, 10-8 Army is favored against the sub-.500 AU, but the Eagles are headed into Wednesday’s matchup determined to grab their second conference win.