Analysis: Even after an NCAA Tournament appearance, the AU women's basketball team has more to look forward to

The team is already preparing for what’s next

Analysis: Even after an NCAA Tournament appearance, the AU women's basketball team has more to look forward to

In all the excitement of this season, American University’s calling card was its willingness to build and grow. 

It was only fitting that the Eagles did just that one final time before the season wrapped up. Their season ended in an unexpected spot, with a 74-39 loss to the University of Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Making it that far was an accomplishment in itself, but as they walked off the floor that afternoon at the Crisler Center, the Eagles had much to consider about how their final game went down. That was evident from the look on head coach Megan Gebbia’s face as she crossed her arms, the indication of a coach who knew her team wasn’t satisfied. 

“The game didn’t go the way we would have liked,” Gebbia said postgame.

No, it didn’t. 

The Eagles missed often at long range, going 4.7 percent on attempts beyond the arc. Flustered by Michigan’s defense, senior Taylor Brown had difficulty creating opportunities on the low block and went 23 percent from the field for eight points. American went 29.8 percent from the field and missed 13 of its 15 shots after being within three with 1:58 to play in the first quarter.

“Our focus was to have a good start,” senior Jade Edwards said. “We didn’t want to start off 10 to 15 points behind, but that set the tone for the whole game.”

It’s tough for anyone to pick holes in a NCAA Tournament appearance after the Eagles spent much of this season in the Patriot League middle ground. When an up-and-down season ends with a loss to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s a step in the right direction. But with this American team, there was always a hunger for more.

With the way they played at the beginning, it was clear they could make some noise in the postseason. But with the way they played at the end – winning seven of their last eight, it was even more clear they were championship favorites.

The effort to improve never went away. The Eagles eventually continued their hot streak of dominance by defeating Boston University and Bucknell, but they couldn’t find that spark against Michigan.

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The Wolverines had a lot to do with that. They focused their game plan on Edwards, making an effort to double-team her and force her to shoot from further out. It worked, as Edwards was unable to drive to the rim and took some 3-pointers that were out of her comfort zone.

“It was pretty difficult,” Edwards said after the game, arms crossed and hunched over in her chair. “Michigan is really talented and at some point, you can’t do much.”

Edwards already made the decision about her future, as did several other players on American’s roster. She’s staying at AU with the goal of spending another season in college and this time, making a run in the NCAA Tournament. Edwards had another stellar season, averaging 12.6 points and 6.5 rebounds, but still faces questions about how her game translates to the next level.

Emily Fisher and Brown, two seniors who can come back because of the NCAA’s COVID-19 exemption, are doing the same. The Eagles are going to look very similar next season.

“We can build on what this team produced,” Gebbia said, seated a few chairs away from Edwards in the postgame news conference. “It’s basically the same team returning.”

Edwards, Fisher and Brown were the backbone of this team, the three players most responsible for elevating the season, scoring a combined 31.5 points. For a team that preached growth, the Eagles proved to be extremely illustrious. They had a plethora of reasons to stop getting better, but continued to improve until the very end and kept their NCAA Tournament dream alive. 

Gebbia described this year as a “year of proving it” before the season, and those words ended up being more accurate than she could have known. Gebbia herself had to prove it, as she led the Eagles on another postseason run. 

“I think you can learn from these situations,” Gebbia said. “And that’s basically what we talked about in the locker room.”

The irony is that, right up until February, it wasn't clear who the Eagles even were. It was only later in the season that the Eagles established themselves as a team that could win a conference championship and makes the NCAA Tournament. Despite the first-round exit, American is already ready for more.

“We have room to get better,” Gebbia said. “That’s what we talked about. And that’s what we’re going to be doing over the summer.”

This team will be remembered for its postseason run, but also for the commitment to take the next step. The NCAA Tournament appearance was a microcosm of that. 

Even now, the Eagles are locked in for what’s next. 

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