Remembering a Historic Upset Thirty Years Later: AU 62, GU 61
From the Cinderella stories of “March Madness” to movies such as “Hoosiers”, basketball has always evoked a very American concept that a small yet determined few can accomplish anything. Its fast pace and nail-biting finishes are not for the weak in heart. In fact, in 1982 South Carolina’s coach had a heart attack during the game.
College basketball is especially exciting because it pairs the youth and exuberance of the players and fans with passions flowing from decades old rivalries. That is how it was thirty years ago today when my alma mater, American University, stunned cross-town rival Georgetown University (my other alma mater) in a 62-61 nail-biter.
This was the peak of Georgetown basketball. Led by seven-foot tall Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest centers in college basketball history, the Hoyas had just barely lost the National Championship Game that spring and were ranked 5th in the nation going into this game.
American University had gone 45-15 in the last two seasons but each year had to settle for NIT appearances after heart breaking losses in the conference finals denied the Eagles their first trip to March Madness. The key components from the prior year were all there at the Capitol Centre that night with the exception of coach Gary Williams who continued on a path that would eventually lead him to Maryland and a National Championship.
Instead, it was Ed Tapscott, in only his fifth game as an NCAA coach, who would match up against the legendary John Thompson. Tapscott prepared his team for the game by using a broom to swat basketballs away during practice so the Eagles would learn to shoot over the towering Ewing. When I interviewed Eagle small-forward Steve Nesmith about the game, I expected the usual “we all put on our sneakers the same way” and “on any given day” clichés, but he surprisingly admitted they expected Georgetown to win . . . unless somehow Patrick Ewing got into foul trouble.
The game came only a week after South Carolina’s head coach experienced a heart attack during the game. To get a sense of the pressures of coaching big-time college basketball, the Washington Cardiovascular Institute gave Coach Tapscott a portable heart monitor to wear during the game. Tapscott’s heart rate jumped from a pregame rate of 68 to a peak of 170 during the game.
Tapscott’s heart had good reason to race, as his Eagles had jumped to a 15-point halftime lead only to see Georgetown close the gap to one point with 5:02 left. Two minutes later, the Eagles were up by six after star guard Gordon Austin drew Ewing’s fifth foul and sunk the two free throws. Even with Ewing on the bench, the Hoyas came back again. With the game on the line and the ball in Nesmith’s hands, Tapscott’s heart had to be jumping as he started to yell “no” only to exclaim “yes” as Nesmith sunk the shot giving the school its biggest victory to date.
The American University campus, enveloped by exam season panic, quickly exploded and spilled out into the nearby traffic circle to welcome their conquering heroes. It would not be until 2008, however, that the Eagles would finally make it to the dance and Eagle faithful are still waiting for the team’s first tournament win.
Tapscott almost scored another upset over a highly ranked Georgetown four years later but the Reggie Williams-led Hoyas held on 62-59 and Coach John Thompson dropped American University from its schedule thereafter. Thompson’s son recently renewed the rivalry and the teams will meet again on December 22.
Nesmith and I attended law school together at Georgetown, where Nesmith scored another victory for the Eagles by becoming student body president. He has gone on to have a successful legal career, including a stint as Assistant Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which no doubt has been fueled by having faced and beaten a giant.