AU’s season concludes in the first round of the NCAA Tournament: ‘It’s always rewarding getting here’
The Eagles couldn’t dig themselves out of a 26-point hole in the second half, losing to Michigan
Seniors Jade Edwards, Emily Fisher and Taylor Brown walked off the podium, attempting to withhold their laughter after American University's media session Friday. The three had massive smiles on their faces as their teammates joined in, laughing through it all.
There was no laughing 24 hours later, there were no smiles. Still, the Eagles’ heads were held high, the trio amongst the proudest.
Fisher, Brown and Edwards walked off graciously following No. 14 seed AU’s loss to No. 3 seed the University of Michigan, 74-39.
For the third time, AU’s season was over in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was emotional knowing that was the final 40 minutes of the season for the upperclassmen who came back for another season of eligibility.
“Getting to travel and be on the road with 12 of your best friends, being in a hotel, playing in huge arenas like this with a lot of fans, it’s really exciting,” Edwards said. “It’s right up there with winning a championship, that same type of thrill.”
Saturday was the end of AU’s season-long journey to move forward and forget the final 40 minutes of last year’s season — a Patriot League semifinal exit to Boston University. Throughout a now 23-9 season, the Eagles did their best to do just that.
Led by Edwards, Fisher and Brown, AU was a force to be reckoned with for conference opponents. The senior connection carried the Eagles to the Patriot League championship, and AU executed well down the stretch to pull out a win. AU came into the NCAA Tournament looking to instill that same kind of execution.
The Eagles started hot but forgot their pass-first, defensive switching identity in the second quarter in a matchup against an opponent that personified toughness and strength. The teams combined for 19 points in the first ten minutes of play. Coming into Saturday as a top-five Patriot League team in scoring, 60 per game, AU registered just 13 points by halftime. Edwards, Fisher and Brown had just six points going into the break as AU trailed by 26.
“If you get on this stage, you’re gonna face somebody who’s really good,” head coach Megan Gebbia said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well at all, and I think that had a lot to do with Michigan’s pressure.”
AU looked more like itself in the third quarter, switching on defense and generating highlights off offensive maneuvers from Edwards and sophomore Emily Johns. After falling behind by 26 points, the Eagles still fought. AU even managed to excite the Michigan crowd after Johns scored with a step-through layup on Michigan’s Naz Hillmon with 3:24 to go in the quarter.
Though AU seemed to contain Hillmon enough in the first quarter, she found her footing when the Wolverines needed her most. Hillmon finished with 24 points, including 11 rebounds. She shot 78 percent from the field.
“I thought we did a really good job on her in the first quarter,” Gebbia said. “What ended up happening was we would miss shots, they would get out in transition and we had guards on her at times because we’re trying to get back.”
While AU flashed some offensive ability, Hillmon outshined the Eagles once more with 4:47 remaining. Hillmon tipped a pass, drove to the basket and drew a foul, then proceeded to jog over to the Wolverine bench and scream. That passion pushed the Wolverines through.
In the aftermath, Edwards said it was inspiring to go out that way.
“It shows that we’re resilient,” Edwards said. “We have people coming in who don’t give up. Regardless of the score, throughout every timeout, it was ‘Don’t worry about the score, keep playing.’”
Gebbia spoke about how exceptional it was to watch what they built throughout the season peak in one night. She didn’t want to talk about the logistics of the loss yet. She didn’t want the successful season and players defined by this defeat. But she did highlight the feeling of watching them get to this point, the players who were the bedrock of an NCAA Tournament team.
“This is just a special time for them,” Gebbia said. “For me, it’s living through them and watching them make their way through these last couple days. It’s always rewarding.”