MIDWEST MISERY By Adam Hirschfeld
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MIDWEST MISERY By Adam Hirschfeld
American University played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history last Friday. I know. I was there.
The Eagles’ stay in the Big Dance ended before 2:30 PM Eastern Standard Time, but the Eagles did not bow out gracefully. They went down swinging, kicking, screaming, clawing and scratching, never giving up even when the outcome was all but a certainty. I have seen enough embarrassing losses by AU in my day to know too well that this one was anything but.
As I mentioned last week, I had no plans to attend this game and would not have but for the fact that doing so enabled my friend Scott and I to live out a shared dream. Scott and I hadn’t seen AU play in March since freshman year when we announced AU’s first round game in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament for the student radio station. AU started that game by falling behind 17-4. Scott and I announced that game like two guys who knew their planned long weekend was going to be a lot shorter than anticipated. I have the tapes to prove it.
Not only did I get to take the last AU road trip Scott and I ever planned to take, but I got to see my friend Stacy as well. Stacy was the first person I ever met at American. I remember the day because it was 110 degrees outside and I explained to her mother why I was (and still pretty much am) against the concept of vegetables. I hadn’t seen Stacy since I hugged her goodbye in the tunnel at graduation in 1999. We had only recently re-connected because I had a picture of Nate in an AU “onesy” and thought she might get a kick out of it. Luckily, Stacy wasn’t one of those people you cannot find on Google! (I wonder how stalkers ever got it done before the creation of internet search engines). We have been in relatively good contact ever since.
(I am now done making this a column about my nice day with two old friends I never get to see anymore).
The AU Athletic Department put together a nice brunch for the alumni who took time and spent money (including my “donation” the Athletic Department, which seemed a bit like blood money; I make that statement as someone who has contributed to a synagogue’s “building fund”) to come to Alabama for this game. As a graduate who lives outside the Beltway, rarely do I feel any connection to my alma mater. I am surrounded by Ohio State and Michigan grads who feel a kinship to their schools that is easily shared and can hit the local sports bar whenever they desire to watch their teams. (and, since I work where I do, the same goes for Colgate). Friday, I talked to more alumni and shared more stories than I had in years. It was a trip both South and back in time.
The game was better than anything I could have hoped for. Hundreds of AU students showed up after an all-night bus trip ready to rock the Birmingham Convention Center. Although outnumbered at least three to one, AU’s cheering section was louder than Tennessee’s all day long.
Maybe that’s because the team played so darned well. I still haven’t gotten it out of my system. In 2-15 games, you almost wait for the moment that the 15 seed realizes it cannot overcome the superiority of the 2 seed and goes through the motions for the rest of the game.
I thought that moment came very early in the game’s opening minutes, when Tennessee stole an inbounds pass under AU’s basket and scored on a layup. Inbounds passes have been a weakness for the Eagles under Jeff Jones. I was wrong; I think AU only had one more inbounds turnover the rest of the game.
AU led for parts of the first half, easily eclipsing the goal of relatively famous alum and NBA journalist David Aldridge, who, like me, just wanted to survive up to the first television timeout. Ultimately, the Eagles trailed by only seven at halftime.
They came out for the second half inspired; AU chipped away until two consecutive three-pointers by Garrison Carr tied the game at 40. A UT timeout followed as the throng of AU fans screamed, believing that maybe the impossible was possible.
UT scored the next ten points.
But on this day, when they could have folded as I have seen them do so many times in the past, the Eagles fought back. Carr, Derrick Mercer, and Brian Gilmore hit consecutive threes to cut the game to one. In a season where the team had adopted “Don’t Stop Believin’” as its theme song, yours truly was becoming a believer.
American never got closer than two points again. But they kept it pretty close for most of the second half.
The most telling moment came in the game’s last three minutes. Down six, Gilmore rebounded a missed three under the basket. Instead a going up for a dunk, he short-armed a layup. The expression on his face suggested that he knew he had missed a key basket and that he should have dunked, but that his body was too exhausted to do that which his mind was directing. That happens when you play eight guys against a team that presses all day.
In the real world, Goliath wins. He takes David’s best shot, staggers around a bit, licks his wounds, and ultimately prevails over his smaller foe. Goliath is a much tougher bastard in the real world than in the folklore.
What a game it had been. Carr deserved a game like this, outscoring Sports Illustrated cover boy Chris Lofton by almost 20 points and being arguably the game’s best player. AU, which had been out-rebounded by every Patriot League team at least once this season, ended the game with nearly ten more rebounds than the only team to beat Memphis this season. The stories in the media described Tennessee’s victory using words like “survival.” “Rocky Top” wasn’t heard all day except during the pre-game warm-ups. Respect was earned.
The moment I will remember at the end of a game in which my school went toe to toe with one of the best seven teams in the country for 37 minutes came at the end. Mercer and Carr, one who has started since they set foot on campus together and the other, whose emergence as a star is the reason I spent Friday in Birmingham, shared a private conversation on the bench. I was too far away to read their lips and could not have done so were I closer, but I imagine Mercer told Carr they would be back next year. Carr seemed to agree.
Seeing as the team returns every major scorer next season, they may be right. As much as I never thought I’d see American in the NCAA Tournament, I am equally surprised that I just wrote those words.
I guess I haven’t stopped believing. Just wait ‘til next year. Maybe David has a couple more stones left in his bag.
Questions? Comments? Feedback counts. Adamh164@yahoo.com