Eagles slay Crusaders 69-63

AU moves on to the second round of the Patriot League tournament against Navy

Eagles slay Crusaders 69-63

Eagles by nature are apex predators, and they made the Holy Cross Crusaders their prey March 2. 

The American University men’s basketball team (10-21) vanquished (9-22) Holy Cross 69-63 to advance to the Semi-Finals of the Patriot League Tournament against the Navy Midshipmen (19-10). The Eagles entered the game on an upswing.

Ranked last in the PL Tournament, AU entered Hart Center Arena after a pillar to post victory over the sixth-ranked Loyola Maryland (14-15) Saturday, Feb. 27. 65-55. AU took the momentum from a momentous senior day and used it to slaughter the legions of Holy Cross Crusaders fans in the student section. 

The game was a back-and-forth affair in the early goings of the first half. Holy Cross ran their offense through Gerrale Gates to start the game, and the undersized Crusader forward thrashed AU the entire game to finish with 18 points. 

Holy Cross was inefficient throughout the first half. The Crusaders held a 15-14 lead with 11 minutes left, but the Eagles soared past their ironclad opponents and never relinquished the lead again. 

Shooting was an issue for the Eagles. The Crusaders were last in team field goal percentage all season, and their struggles to put the ball in the net continued against AU. 

Holy Cross shot just under 44 percent from the field and 22 percent from long range. The Crusaders were also surprisingly careless with the ball in the first half. Fifth of 10 in the PL in turnover margin, the Crusaders coughed the ball up 10 times in the opening period.

The Eagles, who have surrendered 414 turnovers this season, were noticeably protective of the ball finishing the half with four giveaways. AU senior and 2021-2022 All-Patriot League selection Stacy Beckton Jr. led the Eagles’ soaring attack. Time and again, he attacked the basket, fought through contact and baffled defenders with cyclone-like spin moves, and he led the Eagles with 23 points. Beckton wasn’t the only source of offense for the Eagles though.

AU deployed head coach Mike Brennan’s Princeton offense to perfection all game. The Eagles used backdoor passes, screens and cuts to the basket to repeatedly cook the Crusaders’ interior defense and secure easy points in the paint.

Holy Cross’ swiss cheese defense was powerless to stop AU’s effortless attacks, the Eagles so confident in their ability to score in the paint they took only three shots from beyond the arc the entire game, and a Crusader fan in the stands yelled “watch the backdoor!” after they had given up yet another easy look to the Eagles. 

AU freshman Elijah Stephens orchestrated the Eagles’ selfless offense. The PL All-Rookie guard dished out a team-high eight assists and dropped 12 points during the contest, spinning to the basket-like Beckton and drawing fouls to finish 8-8 from the free-throw line. 

Stephen’s dimes benefitted his backcourt mate Colin Smalls the most. The sophomore guard took two feeds from the freshman to the rim, and one fastbreak pass Smalls turned into a one-handed tomahawk destruction of Holy Cross guard DáJion Humphrey.

Fellow senior Josh Alexander contributed offense off the bench too. Alexander attacked the shorter Gates in the paint repeatedly, using his trademark hook shot and interior play to collect 10 points.

Holy Cross at times stagnated when they could not get offense from Gates, and the Eagles took full advantage to take a 32-28 lead going into halftime. The second half was similar to the first.

AU held a lead the entire half. Beckton Jr. and Stephens continued to draw fouls and sink their free throws, and the visitors outrebounded the landlocked Crusaders 20-11. The Eagles seemed to put the game away with 3:40 left in the half with a 63-51 lead. 

However, the Crusaders’ offensive came alive, as the Eagles’ offense sputtered and the specter of elimination stared Holy Cross in the face. Holy Cross went on a 12-3 run to cut AU’s lead to three with 13 seconds left in the game, but it wasn’t enough and AU held on to win.

The win is momentous for the Eagles. AU has not made it out of the first round of the Patriot League tournament since 2015-2016 when they beat Boston University. 

“We knew we were going to have to work for it,” Brennan said postgame. “They were a tough out, but our guys hung in there and played tough.”

Brennan also said the win was good practice for their second-round matchup against Navy at Alumni Hall Thursday at 7 p.m. EST. The Eagles have played the Midshipmen six times in the last two years. They lost all six matchups. 

bmorse@theeagleonline.com 

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