WASHINGTON (AP) -- The pressure of leading American to the NCAA tournament for the first time was getting to the team's best player, who woke up in cold sweats all week.
"I would have the same dream over and over," Garrison Carr said. "And as much as I would try to not think about it, I would still wake up in the middle of the night sweating, with time running down and it being a close game. All I remember was it being close near the end. But we were still able to win it."
The dream became reality Friday, when the Eagles won the Patriot League title with a 52-46 victory over Colgate. Students and alumni, young and old, stormed the court to celebrate American's first trip to the big show since the school joined Division I in 1967.
"I can definitely say now that, despite how much I was telling you guys I wasn't thinking about it, and that the history of the program didn't play a factor, I was definitely thinking about that a lot," said Carr, sporting a piece of net on his left ear from the postgame celebration. "I'm just extremely excited for the program."
To the strains of "Don't Stop Believin" in an intimate and noisy Bender Arena awash with red, white and blue, Carr scored 17 points and was named tournament MVP. Brian Gilmore added 11 points and wrestled away a key steal in the final 20 seconds for the top-seeded Eagles (21-11), whose only previous berth in an NCAA tournament came as a Division II school in 1960.
American had fallen at the final huddle three times since joining the Patriot League in 2001, losing the 2002 championship game at home and the 2003 and 2004 title games on the road. The victory was the long-awaited goal envisioned when former Virginia coach Jeff Jones was hired eight years ago by the school located in the affluent northwest corner of the nation's capital.
Jones shed tears after the game but didn't cite any personal vindication. He spoke instead about the long-suffering alumni.
"They've waited so long and endured a lot of disappointments," Jones said, "so it's great to know that they can watch on Sunday and feel a special sense of pride that for the first time AU is going to be included."
Kyle Roemer scored 17 points, Kendall Chones had 13, and Alex Woodhouse grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds for the third-seeded Raiders (18-14), who were seeking to earn their first NCAA berth since Adonal Foyle led them to back-to-back Patriot League titles in 1995-96. Colgate fell to 0-9 all-time at Bender Arena.
"It's pretty tough," Chones said. "This is what we worked toward all season."
Neither team led by seven in the lowest scoring final in Patriot League history, a physical, nervous game Colgate coach Emmett Davis called "a heavyweight fight." After Gilmore made two free throws to give AU a 49-46 lead, the game came down to a wrestling match between Gilmore and Woodhouse at the top of the key with 19 seconds to play.
Gilmore stole the ball from the Woodhouse, and a jump ball was called while the pair were sprawling on the floor. The possession arrow favored the Eagles.
"I lost the ball, and it turned into football," Woodhouse said. "The game was extremely physical. We matched their intensity until the last minute."
Two free throws by Derrick Mercer -- who was 1-for-10 from the field -- then gave AU a five-point lead, the biggest lead so far in the second half. The Eagles could finally sense the victory Carr had dreamed of -- and release the anxiety they had felt all week since winning their semifinal game on Sunday.
"It's a lot of pressure," Mercer said. "We had American being here three times and coming a little bit short, and to know we had a chance to come out here and pull it off. The pressure should be released, and people should just enjoy the win we got today."