Just when you least expected it, parity has arrived in the Patriot League.
Answering the call on Sunday were American and Holy Cross with the kind of physical, half-court struggle expected from two middle-of-the-pack teams. Not unexpectedly, the game was decided on the final possession of overtime, as a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Dan Munoz gave American a 64-61 victory at Bender Arena.
After a one-and-one free throw miss by Cullen Hamilton and rebound by AU senior Mike Bersch, Munoz dribbled up the left sideline and let fly from the wing with a defender in his face. Officials checked a replay of the shot and quickly decided Munoz released it before the buzzer.
“I was able to glace at the clock real quick and I knew I had three or four dribbles in me,” the senior guard said. “I got to a spot and just rose up and hit it.”
On a day when he took 17 shots and struggled in regulation, Munoz (14 points, five assists) saved his best for last, scoring eight of the Eagles’ 10 points in overtime.
“The first two halves were not my thing,” Munoz said. “The looks were there. They were good looks so I had to keep shooting them. Thankfully they fell in overtime.”
With the victory, American (10-15, 5-5) pulled into a tie for fourth place in the Patriot League with Army (12-13, 5-5). Finishing in the top half of the league is critical as it comes with a home game in the first round of the conference tournament. The teams meet Saturday at American.
After Bucknell (21-5, 8-2) and Lehigh (18-6, 8-2) entered the year as overwhelming favorites in the league, both have been less than dominant. While Lehigh lost All-America guard C.J. McCollum, the struggles of Bucknell are more mysterious. On Saturday while the Mountain Hawks lost at Colgate, the Bison fell at Lafayette.
“I do think it’s probably more wide open,” American coach Jeff Jones said. “I don’t know if I’d say [the tournament] is up for grabs, but it certainly will be interesting.”
Holy Cross (11-14, 3-7) and American demonstrated the parity. A month ago, the Crusaders hammered the Eagles, 79-60, leading in the first half by as many as 24 points. But on Sunday, AU was determined to make amends.
“We were embarrassed up at Worcester,” Jones said. Holy Cross thoroughly embarrassed us. They took it to us early.”
With a physical style, led by 6-8 senior Stephen Lumpkins (17 points, 11 rebounds) and 6-10 junior Tony Wroblicky (six points, eight rebounds), American thrived in a half-court game, combating the inside work of 6-9 junior Dave Dudzinski (19 points, seven rebounds).
“We want to set the tone inside,” Lumpkins said. “They weren’t calling a lot. They were kind of letting us play on both sides so we made adjustments.”
After a tight first half in which neither team led by more than five points, AU got some separation as sophomore guard John Schoof (15 points, five assists) hit a trio of 3-pointers in a span of 4 minutes, 22 seconds to push the Eagles to a 45-37 lead. But senior Phil Beans (10 points) responded immediately with a layup and a 3-pointer and the game was back in tooth-and-nail mode.
Neither team scored a field goal in the final 2:15 of regulation, so it went to overtime. Munoz hit a floater and a 3-pointer to give AU a 58-55 lead. But Holy Cross answered with back-to-back baskets to take the lead. A 3-point-play by Lumpkins put AU in front, before Dudzinski tied it with a put-back, setting the scene for Munoz’s heroics.
“Make or miss, we were gonna get the ball in Danny’s hands as quickly as possible,” Jones said. “We really didn’t want to take the timeout. We wanted to get it and go.”