Senior forward Jesse Chuku battles with College of the Holy Cross center Matt Husek in the first half of the Patriot League Championship game on Wednesday, March 9, 2016 in Stabler Arena. Lehigh lost the game 59-56. (Erik Thomas/B&W Photo)

Historic season for Lehigh men’s basketball ends in bitter disappointment

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A bid to the NCAA tournament for Jesse Chuku — the most dynamic player of the Lehigh men’s basketball senior class.

A ring for Justin Goldsborough, a charge of energy off the bench for four seasons.

History for Devon Carter, the lone senior captain.

A trophy for John Ross Glover, who made the most of his short tenure in Bethlehem.

All four goals were on the line Wednesday night when Lehigh hosted College of the Holy Cross for the Patriot League Championship. Four clean looks from three-point range, four chances to extend the seniors careers, all coming up empty in the final 26 seconds.

As two long balls from freshman guard Kyle Leufroy and sophomore guard Kahron Ross rimmed out, so did the Mountain Hawks’ season. As the buzzer sounded, with the half-court line separating ecstasy from Holy Cross and heartbreak for Lehigh, Ross crumpled to the floor.

It was there, with the Crusaders trading Patriot League Championship hats on one side, did Lehigh coach Brett Reed reach down and lift up his floor general. Beyond proud of his team — just 10-men deep all season long — Reed echoed his admiration for his players, picking them all up one final time in the team’s last press conference of the season.

“I’m very proud of these young men that we would have a difficult journey,” Reed said. “Our non-conference strength of schedule was tops in the country. We didn’t back down to anybody. We were ready to step up and play anybody in the country. We did that.”

Interrupting the press conference was Holy Cross’s anthem. A soundtrack that followed the No. 9 Crusaders from a double-overtime upset in Lewisburg over No. 1 seeded Bucknell — to West Point, New York, in a victory against Army — and finally to Bethlehem for one last hurdle.

In the middle of that jubilance stemming from Holy Cross’s campus in Worcester, Massachusetts, to half court in Bethlehem came Lehigh’s leader all season long — junior center Tim Kempton. For the reigning two-time Patriot League Player of the Year, now adding All-Tournament honors to his repertoire, emotion overcame the subject of MVP chants echoing from Stabler Arena on Wednesday night.

After his 20 point, six-rebound performance, No. 32 walked to center court, mustered a soft smile and graciously accepted the commissioner’s wishes and award. Shouting from the winner’s circle were several Crusaders, genuinely commending the 6-foot-10 center on his night’s battle.

Among them was junior forward Malachi Alexander, whose tournament MVP honors were propelled by his game-high 26 points and nine rebounds in the title game.

Perhaps Lehigh will watch Alexander and the Crusaders represent the Patriot League next week during the NCAA Tournament. Maybe some will take a break from the game.

One thing is for certain, however. The 2016 Mountain Hawks will not be defined as the team that was trapped by a zone defense in the title game. Instead, they will be remembered for punching Syracuse University in the mouth on opening night, riding a nine-game winning streak into the playoffs and rocking Stabler Arena louder than it has been buzzing in years.

For this team, tonight will sting, but with four starters returning, they know another chance at a ring will come again soon.

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