It shouldn’t have happened. They had lost seven straight years to their crosstown rivals. One of their top two scorers was injured and couldn’t play. Their point guard, who would be in charge of facing a furious press, was hurting so badly that he spent the day of the game getting treatment. Their coach was in his fifth game in command while the opposing bench boss had won over 200 games.
Oh yeah, the crosstown rivals just happened to have played for the national championship the previous season and were led by a menacing 7-foot center who had made second-team All-American as a freshman.
And yet, 30 years ago tomorrow: American 62, Georgetown 61, an upset that remains vivid three decades later.
“Whenever I watch that game, I get goosebumps,” said Gordon Austin, AU’s gritty senior point guard who fought through the pain in his right thigh which was kept tied down as he tried to sleep the previous night.
That night, after he ended a second half drought by hitting a floater over Patrick Ewing and quickly added four free throws, two after the Hoyas’ superstar unwisely tried to take a charge, Austin was cockier.
“Maybe now we won’t have to play second-fiddle to Georgetown and George Washington in the city,” he crowed.
As stunning as the upset seemed to the rest of the country – “The rest of that year, that’s what people talked about everywhere we went,” Austin recalled – it wasn’t a shocker to the Eagles. Both rosters were full of D.C. area kids who had played against each other for years. AU center Ferdie Aunon and Georgetown forward Bill Martin had been Kenner League teammates the previous summer.
“It was a chance for us to make a statement,” said AU coach Ed Tapscott, who had been promoted from assistant when Gary Williams left for Boston College the previous spring. But his players didn’t exactly see it that way, not after having gone 45-15 the past two seasons while just missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth each March.
“It wasn’t an intimidating game for us,” said Aunon, who gave up five inches in his battle with Ewing down low. “We were almost snoozing in the van going over to Cap Centre. We were accustomed to playing these guys. And to them, we were just American University.”
The guys from “just American U” — who didn’t have an on-campus gym and played home games in cramped and chilly Ft. Myer, an Army base in Arlington — played a near-perfect first half. Steve Nesmith, subbing for Sloane, couldn’t miss. The Hoyas’ press wasn’t bothering Austin, but AU’s packed-in zone defense was smothering Ewing.
“We were up 15 at halftime,” recalled Tapscott, whose balanced attack was led by senior Mark Nickens’ 17 points. “I didn’t have anything to say except, ‘Good half. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ We were playing as good as we could possibly play and Georgetown wasn’t playing that well. I told the players, ‘Those guys are really gonna press you the rest of the way so let’s keep attacking the basket like it’s 0-0.’ “
But midway through the half in that pre-shot clock era, AU went into a stall. It didn’t stop the relentless Georgetown pressure led by Gene Smith, who spit at the tiring Austin when he wasn’t grabbing jerseys.
“They went after us like it was their last game and they were gonna get killed at the end of practice the next morning,” Aunon said. “We stopped being the aggressor and ended up just barely hanging on. We were looking at the clock, thinking, ‘Please, tick, tick, tick.’”
The clock and the fifth-ranked Hoyas finally succumbed on two late free throws apiece from seniors Andre Adams and Juan Jones.
“We lost the second half by 14,” Tapscott remembered. “Thankfully, we had been ahead by 15.”
The Eagles piled into their van for the joyous ride back to Ward Circle. The back of Cassell Center was dark and quiet as it should have been at night during exam week, but when the players headed out the front …
“It looked like the entire campus was out on Massachusetts Avenue waiting for us,” Aunon recalled. “I ran back inside and said, ‘Guys, you’re not gonna believe this!’ When we came out, a couple thousand people went crazy screaming, hollering and clapping for us. I had never seen that many people at one of our games. It was like Mardi Gras.”
AU would lose to GW three nights later, the start of a 5-6 slide that prompted Tapscott to threaten to bench his seniors. From that point on, the Eagles went 11-2 until they lost by a basket to LaSalle in yet another East Coast Conference final. The Hoyas, who met AU after a defeat in a showdown with 7-4 Ralph Sampson and Virginia, went 22-10, losing in the second round of the NCAAs, but they would win the 1984 national championship and play for the title again in 1985.
When AU almost beat Georgetown again in 1986, Thompson halted the series which didn’t resume until five years ago. The schools meet again on Dec. 22.
“Beating Georgetown was the highlight of my career because of the respect with which I hold John Thompson and his program,” said Tapcott, who coached AU for eight years and the Wizards for 71 games in 2008-09 and is now the team’s director of player development after running front offices in Charlotte and New York. “He had had such success in getting local players to go to Georgetown that they hoped that I could do the same at AU since I was a local guy. Of course, their players went to the NBA and ours went and got their MBAs.”
Austin and Aunon, roommates then and still basketball teammates in a Northern Virginia adult league, are both in sales although the latter also coaches the West Springfield High JV. And they still treasure the memory of what happened that night at the old Cap Centre.
“We always believed we could beat Georgetown,” Austin said. “We had a really good team that never got enough credit because we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. To this day, people still recognize my name and can’t believe that I’m that Gordon Austin.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin