Back in December, things were looking grim for American. The Eagles had lost five of six games, causing their record to fall below .500. They were coming off a 67-51 loss to Maryland, the fifth time they had been held below 55 points. All the good feelings generated by making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament last season had faded.
But just when it seemed that American was going to follow up its most successful season with a mediocre one, the Eagles turned their season around. Heading into Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at Holy Cross, American (11-6, 3-0) has won six in a row to claim sole possession of first place in the Patriot League.
It all started with that Maryland loss.
“Coach talked about after that game there’s going to be some changes,” Derrick Mercer said. “Coach felt like basketball wasn’t as important to some of the guys on this team. He just said we’re going to have to make basketball first. Basketball has got to be the most important thing for us right now. We were losing so everybody was just so uptight, and basketball really wasn’t important at the time because it brought [unhappiness] to our lives.
“I think everybody needed to take a rest from basketball. We had a couple days off [after the Maryland game]. I think the rest really helped us and we came back and we were focused and we were positive. . . . I think we’re starting to get it. I think we’re starting to realize that the little things are what wins games.”
Since the setback to Maryland, American has won its six games by at least 10 points. The Eagles have scored at least 60 points in the six victories, and even more significantly, have held five of those six opponents to 55 points or less.
“During that after exam time, I think that’s when we started seeing some improvement,” AU Coach Jeff Jones said. “I think that’s when, quite honestly, the chemistry started coming around. Yeah, we have a lot of returning players, but there’s always different roles and different expectations and all of that. . . . I don’t think we’ve hit our stride yet, but I do think that we’re getting better.”
Jones has been as pleased with his team’s offensive execution as he has been with its scoring balance. In four of the six wins, at least three players scored in double figures. “It’s not Garrison Carr or bust,” Jones said.
Mercer has been playing particularly well lately. The team’s ironman – Mercer has played 392 minutes out of a possible 405 in American’s last 10 games – is averaging 11.2 points and 5.7 assists during the winning streak. “Mercer has really taken his game up a notch,” Jones said.
Given how well American is playing and how poor Holy Cross’s overall record is (8-11, 3-1) one might not expect this to be much of a contest. But anyone who knows the history between these teams knows that Saturday’s game, which is being televised by ESPNU, should be a battle.
“It’s always a tough game when we play Holy Cross,” Jones said. “Last year, they finished last in the regular season, but we knew in the first round of the [Patriot League] tournament that was the hardest game we had. None of [the tournament games] were easy, but that one was really, really a struggle.”
Holy Cross is a tough, physical team that likes to pound away at an opponent. The Crusaders had won eight in a row against American until the Eagles won in Worcester last February and then knocked off Holy Cross in the Patriot League tournament. Three of the last four games have been decided by two points.
“It’s a contrast in style. It is a difficult matchup,” Jones said. “We have to make sure our guys understand that it’s not going to be played the same way [as other league games]; it’s not going to be officiated the same way. It’s a totally different game when you play Holy Cross than it is with any of the other teams in the league.”
January 23, 2009; 6:25 AM ET
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