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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
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40 years since the biggest victory in AU basketball history

Traveling back in time to the Georgetown upset through archives from The Eagle

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here

In 82 years of crosstown play, the American University Eagles have matched up with the Georgetown Hoyas 55 times. Georgetown has won 45 of those matchups. 

The Hoyas are consistently recognized as one of the nation’s top college basketball programs, producing college and NBA legends like Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutumbo and Allen Iverson.

But on Dec. 15, 1982, AU men’s basketball played in a game The Eagle dubbed “The night American University was heard all over America.” December 2022 will mark 40 years since the biggest victory in AU school history. The Eagles upset the nationally ranked and eventually legendary Georgetown team that was headlined by Ewing, one of the greatest centers in basketball history.

Eagles vs. Hoyas: Lopsided rivalry since 1938

Playing — and losing to — the Hoyas has been a mainstay for AU basketball since the inception of the program. American first took the court against Georgetown in 1938, just 12 years after the Eagles’ basketball program was established. It took AU until 1942 to notch their first win against the crosstown rival. 

There was a time when American was arguably the better basketball program — in the 1970s there was a five-year stretch where the Eagles went 4-1 against the Hoyas. Soon after, though, Georgetown molded itself into becoming the modern basketball powerhouse it's now known as nationwide.

The 1980s were the second-winningest decade in AU basketball history since moving to Division 1 in 1966. This was partly due to Ed Tapscott, a Washington College of Law alumnus who was one of the most successful coaches in the program's history. 

The 1982-83 season was Tapscott’s first season as head coach of the Eagles. Previously, he had worked as an assistant under Gary Williams, the Eagles’ men’s basketball head coach from 1978 through 1982 who went on to coach the Maryland Terrapins to a national championship in 2002.

The game

Amid finals week for both schools, the hoopers headed up to the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland on Dec. 15, 1982 for a Wednesday night matchup. Over 9,900 spectators joined them, according to The Washington Post.

Eagles fans probably expected to lose, as they had done in the last seven meetings with the Hoyas. The 1982-83 Georgetown team had five future NBA players and went 22-10. To add insult to injury for the Eagles, Ed Sloane (AU ‘83), AU’s best offensive player, was out of the game with a groin pull. Luckily backup guard Steve Nesmith (AU ‘85) stepped up in Sloane’s absence, scoring 14 points.

The Eagles set the pace early. Before the game, Tapscott told his players that “Georgetown is young; they play freshmen and sophomores while we have a more experienced team,”  

The Eagles relied on that experience to take the fight to the Hoyas, and American was up 39-24 at the half. Mark Nickens (AU ‘85) led the Eagles’ scoring in the half, registering 13 of his total team-high 17 in the first half

Despite this, Georgetown refused to roll over to their little brother on Massachusetts Avenue. By the time the clock reached 3:02 left in the second half, the Hoyas had gone on an 18-2 run to pull the score to 51-50 with American still holding their lead.

The game turned from exciting to utterly marvelous when a 5-foot-11-inch Gordon Austin (AU ‘83), who was playing through a thigh injury, yelled “Watch this!” to the AU bench before driving down the lane to make an underhanded scoop over the 7 foot tall Patrick Ewing to put the Eagles up 3. Austin proceeded to get hacked twice, causing both Ewing and fellow Hoya Michael Jackson to foul out of the game with only a few minutes remaining. 

Georgetown desperately tried to break AU’s tactics by fouling and using a press to poke the ball loose, but the Eagles kept making their free throws. The game was sealed when Juan Jones (AU ‘84) made a free throw with 13 seconds left to put the Eagles up 62-59. Not even a Georgetown jumper to bring it within one was enough, as time expired before anyone even got the chance to inbound the ball. 

The game finally came to an end, with the Eagles coming out on top, 62-61. Campus took a break from studying for finals to celebrate the victory late on a Wednesday night.

Campus reaction

The Washington Post reported a campus gone “berserk” once news of the game’s result broke.

Students flooded Massachusetts Avenue, pounding the hoods of passing cars and “screaming and thrusting index fingers into the night air” to indicate who D.C.’s new #1 college basketball team was.

“It was the most excitement I’ve seen in my three years here,” then-junior Peter Travis told The Washington Post.

Freshly printed box score sheets were tossed from windows on campus, sailing down onto passing students, according to The Washington Post. The student body was eager to celebrate the school’s biggest victory, made much sweeter by Georgetown’s national #5 ranking.

“It was sick,” then-junior Ricky Costella told the Washington Post. “There were fireworks everywhere. Everyone was crowded in front of the gym, going nuts. People were cheering all over campus.”

Legacy

The 1982-1983 AU squad was one of the best to grace campus, finishing the season with a 20-10 record that still ranks in the top 10 all-time winning percentages in program history. The team’s roster contained some of the most talented players to ever play for the program, including two of the 11 total players from AU to ever be drafted into the NBA.

Mark Nickens went on to be drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks 88th overall in the 1983 NBA draft. He is ninth in all-time points scored and fourth for all-time steals in AU history.

Gordon Austin was also drafted in the 1983 NBA draft, going 184th to the Philadelphia 76ers. He was also inducted into the Stafford H. “Pop” Cassell Hall of Fame in 2001 for his achievements on the court as an Eagle. He still holds the school record for most assists in a season and total for a men’s basketball player and #3 for all-time steals.

Tapscott was also inducted into the Stafford H. “Pop” Cassell Hall of Fame in 2006 for his achievements as one of AU’s most successful coaches, still holding the third-most wins in AU coaching history. After his time at American, he made the jump to the professional level in 1990. 

Tapscott played a key role in constructing the 1990s New York Knicks teams, which starred Patrick Ewing, who reached the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999. He later went on to coach the Washington Wizards in 2007-08 before returning to player development. He now works with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Four years after the upset, following another close game where the Hoyas only edged by on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, Georgetown coach John Thompson informed AU coach Ed Tapscott they would no longer schedule American for non-conference play, the Post reported.

This was Thompson’s final move in a series that would end any sort of local rivalry. Six years prior, in 1979, Thompson shouted things the Associated Press phrased as a “profane tirade” directed toward UMD coach Lefty Driesell. Following this confrontation, Thompson dropped the Terrapins from future schedules. Three years later, he would also stop scheduling games against George Washington. American was the final domino to fall in Georgetown’s refusal to entertain any crosstown rivalries.

AU didn’t play Georgetown again until 21 years later in 2007. The Eagles lost. The 2008 matchup turned up the same result, and so has every matchup against the Hoyas since. It has been 40 years since the Eagles last tasted victory against D.C.’s college basketball maestro. 

apowers@theeagleonline.com 


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