The American University Eagles could have, probably should have, and would like to have crushed Villanova's Final Four aspirations in Philadelphia. The Eagles led 41-31 at the end of the first half, and extended the lead to 14 points three minutes into the second.
Then the fouls came.
Shooting Guard Garrison Carr, who was 6-13 from three-point range in the game, got called for two in three possessions, and had to sit on the bench with four fouls with ten minutes left to go in the game. Not only that, the Eagles were in the bonus, and every foul became a shooting foul—with ten whole minutes left to go.
Eagles center Jordan Nichols was in foul trouble, too.
Villanova did what any team with Dante Cunningham would do—pounded it down low and got easy buckets. Eventually that 14-point deficit disappeared, and they won the game by 13.
Let me tell you, it was a very long ride drive back to DC after a loss like that.
After the game both teams said the same thing, Villanova's bigger athletes wore American down. That's true, but at the same time, if AU hadn't gotten in foul trouble so soon, the game would have been very different.
I asked Eagles Coach Jeff Jones after the game why his team kept fouling at the end of the game, even though they were down by double digits as the clock ticked down. His response mirrored the players attitude throughout the entire game.
"We came here to win the basketball game," he said. "Whether the crowd liked it or not, I don't care. If there was a chance to win, we were going to try."
This is hardly the way point guard Derrick Mercer, guard Garrison Carr, forward Brian Gillmore, forward Frank Borden, or center Jordan Nichols envisioned their season ending. Especially since they had been in this situation one season earlier against Tennessee.
But the truth is they have done nothing but good for the university they represent, and the next generation of Eagles players have a lot to live up to.
This program is on the rise, however. With some promising young prospects and sophomores getting ready to start next year (the team did not have a single junior on its roster this season), and coach Jones leading the way, the Eagles are always a threat in the Patriot League. If they can win that conference's automatic bid, maybe they can finish what they started in the NCAA tournament.
For now, the university is appreciating what Mercer, Carr, Gillmore, Borden, and Nichols did for the program (as well as senior forward Bryce Simon and senior center Frane Markusovic), while looking with cautious optimism towards the future.