Four 3-pointers attempted. Four misses to tie the game. Four graduating seniors who missed out on an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.
It has been the motivation for the Mountain Hawks throughout their 2016-17 season.
Lehigh players watched with tears streaming down their faces as Holy Cross created a dogpile at halfcourt, celebrating the victory at Stabler Arena following last year’s Patriot League Championship. The image still lingers in the mind of the Lehigh men’s basketball team heading into the 2017 postseason.
“We have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” senior captain Tim Kempton said. “It’s definitely a memory we look back to, and every day in practice we push a little harder. That will always stay in the back of our minds especially as we go into the postseason.”
Lehigh (18-11, 12-6 Patriot) will begin its quest to return to the title game Thursday night when the Mountain Hawks host Colgate University in the Patriot League Tournament quarterfinals. It will be the final opportunity for Kempton and fellow senior Austin Price to get a ring.
“Not only do we want (the championship) really bad, we want to send (Kempton) and (Price) off the right way,” sophomore Kyle Leufroy said. “They’ve been here for four years now, giving their hearts and hard work, and that’s the only thing they’re missing.”
Needing only three wins to hoist the trophy, the Mountain Hawks’ first test is against the No. 6 seed Colgate. The Raiders finished their season 10-21 overall with an 8-10 conference mark. Lehigh swept Colgate during the regular season, including an 87-69 win at Stabler Arena last week.
In the first matchup between these teams Jan. 25, the Mountain Hawks came away with a 76-62 win on the road. Junior Kahron Ross nearly notched a triple-double in that meeting, tallying 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
Despite winning by an average margin of 16 points against Colgate this season, the Mountain Hawks believe Thursday will be a tough matchup for them, especially with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
“It’s always hard to beat a team three times,” Leufroy said. “I don’t think we can take any team lightly. We need to take it one game at a time and keep this going.”
Lehigh returns to the Patriot League Tournament as an experienced group. The Mountain Hawks return four of their five starters from last season along with all three team captains. The Lehigh offense will also play a factor in the team’s championship hopes as the Mountain Hawks finished with one of the top offenses in the country.
As a team, the Mountain Hawks finished first in the conference in free throw percentage, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. While the offense has been a constant for the team this year, Kempton emphasized that the team’s defense will separate Lehigh from the competition.
“When our defense is clicking, we’re a hard team to beat,” Kempton said. “Earlier on in the season we didn’t rely on our defense, and now we’re winning games on the defensive end, and then our offense flows from there.”
After being picked first in the preseason Patriot League poll, the Mountain Hawks started off league play losing two of their first three games. After stringing together five wins out of their next six games, Lehigh suffered back-to-back losses to Loyola University and Boston University, dropping to fifth in the conference. The team regained its momentum as it won six of its final seven games to salvage the No. 3 seed in the tournament.
Coach Brett Reed said the team has to iron out the inconsistencies that resulted in six Patriot League losses this season if the Mountain Hawks want to advance in the tournament.
“We have had tangible evidence that when we play together, hard and with commitment, we win,” Reed said. “However, human nature is a tough thing and sometimes we revert back to some old habits. We have to have the maturity and mental toughness to be able to follow the formula over the course of our next three games.”
The quarterfinal matchup is slated for a 7 p.m. start Thursday at Stabler Arena. If the Mountain Hawks are victorious, they will face the winner of Loyola/Boston University.