American suffocates Holy Cross to win second straight Patriot League title

WASHINGTON -- Last year, American proved it could do it. This year, it was supposed to do it.

The two distinct types of pressure yielded the same result: Fans again stormed the court, players again cut down the nets, the Patriot League trophy again was paraded at midcourt, Garrison Carr again was the tournament MVP -- and, yes, the Eagles were again on their way to the NCAA tournament.

And, this time, they might be the only team from the D.C. area to get there.

Carr scored 24 points, launching momentum-swinging 3-pointers whenever his team needed them, and American's defense suffocated Holy Cross in a 73-57 victory Friday in the Patriot League title game.

"This year is even better -- because the second time around is harder," said Carr, one of seven seniors on the team. "As juniors, it's good, but you always have another year. And now that we're seniors, we're not going to have another game here at AU, and this was the best way to go out."

In front of a standing-only Bender Arena crowd of 3,123 -- including Mayor Adrian Fenty, who beamed with pride in his embroidered, blue AU jacket -- American ensured that the D.C. metro area wouldn't be shut out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1978.

With Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason not in the mix and Maryland on the bubble, coach Jeff Jones' Eagles flew the local banner by riding a roster of veterans to a title in a season in which anything else would have been a huge disappointment.

American (24-7) earned its first NCAA Division I berth last year and lost 72-52 to Tennessee as a No. 15 seed. Only one school -- Bucknell in 2005 and 2006 -- has won while representing the Patriot League in the NCAA tournament.

With all that history in mind, Jones had a different perspective than Carr when comparing the two titles.

"For me, last year was a hell of a lot more pressure-packed and more emotional," said Jones, the former Virginia coach in his ninth season at AU. "It was like a relief, the frustration from getting close and not being able to do it, the 40 years or whatever of never being in the tournament. Both of them are pretty daggum good, but [this year] clearly is a different kind of feeling."

In his postgame locker room message, Jones told the players: "There's still more out there." He remembered watching some of them "play afraid" when he viewed the replay of the loss to Tennessee, and he'll work hard to make sure that doesn't happen again when practice resumes next week.

"The message that will be delivered on Monday," Jones said, "will be much stronger than it was presented a year ago."

Brian Gilmore added 18 for the Eagles, who shot 71 percent in the second half, but there was little doubt AU won because it didn't give conference rookie of the year R.J. Evans and the rest of the Crusaders (18-14) much room to breathe for the first 30 minutes.

Holy Cross shot 32 percent for the game, including 4-for-22 in the first half, and found itself in a 20-point hole early in the second half. Evans, often shadowed by Carr, finished with 16 points on 7-for-16 shooting. Pat Doherty added 13 points for the Crusaders, who were seeking a record sixth Patriot League title.

The Patriot final is always as tense as can be because the runner-up is almost usually done for the season. This one was no exception, and it showed in the passionate play by both teams -- and the expressions on both sets of players' faces afterward.

"It's death," Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard said. "You lose and you're dead. It's a lot of pressure on these kids. But, hey, I'm a firm believer that, especially in a league like ours, you learn a lot of great life lessons, and I think our guys learned."

The final was a fitting one, pitting the conference's top two seeds, both ranking among the national leaders in scoring defense. Top-seeded American ran its winning streak to 13 games -- the second-longest in the country -- and avenged its only loss of 2009, a 71-62 defeat at Holy Cross on Jan. 24.

Points, therefore, were hard to come by, especially in the first half. Holy Cross went more than 7 1/2 minutes without a field goal, a stretch that included three offensive fouls by three different players.

The drought allowed the Eagles to go on a 9-0 run that gave them the lead for good. AU led 28-18 at the half, and Carr helped pushed the lead to 45-25 with a back-to-back 3-pointers in an 8-0 run early in the second half. Holy Cross then tried to make a game of it, going on a 9-1 run to cut the lead to 12.

The Eagles, though, always seemed to have an answer, whether it was a three-point play from Gilmore or another 3-pointer from Carr. Holy Cross never closed within single digits in the second half, and soon the AU cheerleaders were running on the floor unveiling a "We're Dancing" banner.

"We want to do more," guard Derrick Mercer said. "We want to add more to this winning season. We don't want to go out like we did last year."