The Lehigh men’s basketball 2015-16 season was all set up to have a storybook ending.
The team started 0-7 after facing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the entire country. The team had three players who would miss the entire season.
And after a mediocre start to league play, the Mountain Hawks pulled off an 11-game winning streak to get them into the Patriot League Championship, a home game against the No. 9 seed College of the Holy Cross. Only one more win and Lehigh was back to the NCAA Tournament.
However, the Crusaders spoiled that ending, defeating Lehigh 59-56 Wednesday at Stabler Arena to win the Patriot League Championship.
Instead of Lehigh fulfilling what seemed like a natural ending to the season, it was Holy Cross who cut down the nets. It was Holy Cross who celebrated in the middle of Stabler Arena. And it was Holy Cross earned a chance in March Madness.
Down three points with 26 seconds remaining, Lehigh had four separate opportunities to tie it on the final possession of the game. Freshman guard Kyle Leufroy and sophomore guard Kahron Ross traded off taking 3-pointers for four consecutive misses, including a wild jump shot from Ross as time expired that missed the mark.
“We knew we needed to make a play,” coach Brett Reed said. “There was enough time that we didn’t have to resort to a 3-pointer, but the three presented itself, and it was a pretty clean look. Under those circumstances and those situations, if you told me that we would have Kyle Leufroy and Kahron Ross both of them with two open looks within the last 26 seconds to tie it, I would probably take that odds on our team.”
As with the last matchup between these two teams, which was a five-point victory for the Mountain Hawks on Feb. 15, Lehigh was stifled by the Holy Cross 1-3-1 defense, and it was held to just 14 points in the first half.
“I would say it affected it us to where it put us in a bad situation,” junior center Tim Kempton said. “I thought we came out and played on our heels instead of being the aggressor, and that’s ultimately what led to that hole in the first half.”
Kempton still managed to record 20 points and six rebounds, but most of the Mountain Hawks’ roster struggled with its shot. Lehigh finished the game shooting 38.1 percent from the field after one of its worst first halves of the year.
Kempton was the only Lehigh player to make more than half his shots. Junior guard Austin Price (2-for-12), Leufroy (5-for-15) and Ross (4-for-12) all missed a large percentage of their attempts.
Kempton led this charge, converting on a trio of 3-point plays, the second of which cut the Holy Cross lead to just four points midway through the second half. Each time, Kempton exploded with emotion, looking toward the crowd yelling “Let’s go!” at the top of his lungs.
However, Holy Cross made its final four three throws of the game to help seal the victory.
Unless Lehigh gets invited to another end-of-season tournament, the team will finish the year with a 17-15 record, ending its 11-game win streak. Holy Cross will move on to the NCAA Tournament as an automatic qualifier.
Lehigh will return most of its key players in 2016-17, including the addition of three new recruits and the three players who missed all of this season due to injury.
“It wasn’t a question in our minds that we could make it to this point,” Kempton said slowly, fighting back tears. “It’s obviously frustrating to get to this point in the season and come up empty.”