Men’s basketball takes the Patriot League title from American
March is the time of the year for college basketball teams when dreams either become reality or are crushed by a Cinderella team.
For the men’s basketball team on Wednesday, 15 players’ dreams finally came true. Lafayette defeated American in a close affair to win the Patriot League Championship and earn an automatic bid to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Sophomore point guard Nick Lindner scored 25 points to lead Leopards. Senior Seth Hinrichs also added 16 points to the team’s effort.
Lafayette ended the first half leading by a score of 34-25. Soon after coming out for the second half, they added to the lead, handing American a 13-point deficit with 17:06 left to play. Over the next five minutes of play, both teams butted heads, with American pulling to within eight points several times. With 11:19 left to play, Lafayette held a 12-point lead and it seemed that a win was eminent.
But with 5:07 left to play, American managed to gain a two-point lead on Lafayette. Shortly after, a clutch 3-pointer by Hinrichs put the score at 56-53 in favor of Lafayette.
And then the unsung hero of the game emerged, junior Zach Rufer. Rufer scored five points in the game, but the box score doesn’t show how much hustle a player leaves on the floor. Rufer made an immediate impact on the court.
With 2:20 minutes left in the second half, the score was 56-55 in favor of the Leopards, when the ball seemed to be deflected out of bounds, but a relentless Rufer saved the ball from going into the students section and passed to teammate Bryce Scott. Rufer then charged into the corner and hit a 3-pointer to put the Leopards up 59-55.
“I just threw it out there hoping Pee Wee [Gardner] wasn’t going to snag it,” Rufer said. “I knew Bryce was going to pass it to me before it even got to me, so I was just waiting to shoot the ball.”
But it was Linder who was crowned tournament MVP and rightfully deserved so. Linder led the Leopards in scoring this postseason, averaging 23.7 points per game. But more importantly, he became a player that others could rely on to score the basketball. Such scoring opportunities arose from opposing defenses’ concentration on senior Dan Trist in the low and high post.
“They were hugging our shooters like teams normally do and they were switching ball screens,” Lindner said. “Dan got out of there quickly and was able to get attention and luckily I was able to get to the basket.”
Hinrichs added, “go to Nick.”
“They were obviously trying to cover Dan really closely and I think that was part of their game plan,” he said. “Nick exploited a mismatch and took it to the rack.”
On the first leg of their journey to the tourney, the Leopards had to square off against Boston University. The Leopards defeated the Terriers with ease, winning by a score of 89-64. All five starters scored in double figures, including Linder with 23, Trist with 11, Hinrichs with 18, Ptasinski with 15 and Scott with 14.
From there it got harder when the Leopards had to play the Patriot League regular season champs—Bucknell—at Sojka Pavilion, where the Leopards have never won a playoff game. Lindner let the way once again led the way for the team with 23 points and Ptasinski added 18.
Adding fuel to the Leopards on Wednesday was the fact that American was the only team to beat Lafayette both times during the regular season.
“I was hoping that we’d get to play American to give us another chance,” head coach Fran O’Hanlon said. “I didn’t think it would be fair to avoid American and beat everyone else in the league. It was good that we got to play them and they gave me a few more grey hairs.
Another contributing factor to the Leopards win was the atmosphere. A sold out crowd was relentless and provided the spark that the team needed to trump the Eagles.
“When you’re in an atmosphere like that the first few minutes are always a little nerve racking,” Hinrichs said. “But it’s exciting. You don’t have to worry about having any energy for the game. It’s about controlling that energy and you don’t want to lose all of it after the start. It was the best crowd I’ve been apart of…other than Kansas, but the home crowd was a little better.”
This win for the senior class comes as well earned. Two years ago, they squared off against Lehigh in the Patriot League Championship and lost narrowly by a score of 64-56. Just sophomores at the time, the class of Hinrichs, Trist, Joey Ptasinski and Alan Flannigan certainly has left their mark at Lafayette.
Hinrichs, Trist and Ptasinski all eclipsed 1,000 career points over their careers at Lafayette. The win on Wednesday justifies all of the effort and time that they each spent developing into the players that they are today.
“This ranks number one [basketball memory],” Hinrichs said.
For O’Hanlon, this is his third Championship in his tenure and Lafayette and his first since 2000. But this Championship comes as no surprise to him.
“I thought that coming into the season we were as good as anybody in the league,” O’Hanlon said. “This league has had as much parody as I’ve seen in recent memory, so coming into the playoffs I didn’t think that there was anyone that was going to upset anybody. Everybody had a chance to beat anybody.”
On Sunday, the Leopards next opponent will be revealed. The journey will get even harder for the Leopards in the NCAA tournament, where they will most likely be a 16 or 15-seed.
But it’s March and anything is possible.