Game 031:at Lehigh 63, Lafayette 57 Wednesday, January 12, 2005 Stabler Arena - Bethlehem, PA
February 14th, 2004 broke cold and clear in the slumbering burg of Easton, Pennsylvania, but the love in the Kirby Sports Center was powerful enough to warm the whole town. Lafayette's basketball team sat alone atop the Patriot League with an 8-1 record (17-5 overall), and each of the fans in attendance that afternoon received a surprise Valentine's Day present.
"Wear these proudly," boomed the public address announcer as volunteers handed out three thousand maroon-colored t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, Lafayette 6th Man: Loud And Proud. "You are all such an important reason for this season's success, and we want to thank you. Wear these t-shirts to home games, and take them on the road with you. You, Leopard fans, are our sixth man!"
Many of the Lafayette faithful knew that this wasn't just another season of Cinderella dreams, just another improbable run at glory - this was a counter-counter-revolution. The founding principles of the Patriot League were at stake: by continuing to hold fast to the ideal that student-athletes shouldn't receive free tuition just because they can ball a little, the college was the Final Amateur in a conference of Last ones. Colgate had announced that they'd be offering free rides to student-athletes starting in 2004-05, therefore abandoning Lafayette as the sole remaining adherent. An appearance by the Leopards in the NCAA Tournament would serve as evidence that a team of 12 walk-ons could still win in a conference of modern scholarship-fueled programs.
But none of the faithful could have imagined that Lafayette's win that Sunday, a closely-fought 78-72 victory over Holy Cross, would be the last win that team would enjoy. A defense that had been suspect all along failed to keep pace with scoring - the Leopards fell at Bucknell, and again upon their return home versus cross-valley enemy Lehigh Mountain Hawks. But the nadir occurred on a gloomy Thursday night against a Navy club that hadn't won a conference game in 13 tries... the four-point final margin was hardly indicative of the beatdown that the lowly Midshipmen doled out that night.
Just two weeks after Valentine's Day, Lafayette's season was in ruins. On a bittersweet Senior Day, misty-eyed players hugged their moms at midcourt and said goodbye to college basketball. Forty-three points of offense walked off the court that day too, including the streaky tandem of Justin DeBerry and Winston Davis. The Leopards limped into the Patriot League Tournament as a broken three-seed. The cruel (and slightly ironic) ending came in something of an Idealism Bowl, an upset at the hands of those turncoat Colgate Red Raiders in a nearly-empty Show Place Arena. The end of this particular revolution was not televised, and John Feinstein wasn't providing color commentary.
But LC has no intention whatsoever to lose their Ivy-like scholarship status, as evidenced by the 10-year declaration of confidence they tendered to coach Fran O'Hanlon. The Urge may be creeping and seeping into the Patriot League, but not at Lafayette.
Last night, when fifteen hundred Leopard fans braved the fog to make the 11-mile trek to Lehigh's Stabler Arena, there were very few 6th Man t-shirts being worn; perhaps the wounds of last season's bitter end are still sore. This game stood as the 201st meeting between the two schools, a series which Lafayette has dominated by a 2-to-1 margin. But Lehigh is the owner of the 2003-04 Patriot League championship banner, which now hangs proudly over center court at the Stabler. Most of that season's success can be traced back to one Austen Rowland, a smart and fast point guard who could shoot the lights out when he needed to. They had him for just one year after three at Delaware.
The Mountain Hawks have used the scholarship carrot again to create an instant identity. Joe Knight, formerly of High Point, will bring the ball up for them for the next two years. Knight spent his first year as a Panther at the point and second as a combo guard, and he still looks a little bit rusty as he gets used to his role, as well as the culture of the Patriot League. "We didn't have a rivalry like this in the Big South," he said after the game.
The two ancient Lehigh Valley foes fought evenly for 15 minutes, until Lehigh delivered the first blow of the game, keyed by two treys by long-range gunner Jose Olivero. They kept Lafayette from scoring a field goal for the last 6:39 of the first half, and went into the locker room with a 33-23 cushion. Lehigh built a 16-point lead early in the second, and the game appeared to be a mid-round TKO; many families with small children took the opportunity to visit the Mountain Hawk Fun Zone with its bouncy-castle and mini-hoops game.
But Lafayette wasn't about to allow Stabler to become an amusement park at their expense. Their burgeoning nucleus of underclassman guards - Marcus Hailey, Jamaal Hilliard and Paul Cummins - started hitting from downtown, and big Sean Knitter crashed the defensive boards with a vengeance. The Leopards ran off a string of 15 unanswered points, and found themselves with a lead of four with six to go.
The closing stages provided a fierce, physical scrap that was meticulously overseen by an officiating crew that seemed to take a zealous relish in determining if contact was acceptable or not. Lehigh tightened the screws on the perimiter, forcing four consecutive missed treys whilst their offense drove around town aimlessly hoping to find a Jiffy Lube. They never found it, but as the sands of the hourglass slowed to a trickle, Lehigh rebuilt a 10-point lead, one by one, during those moments when time stood still. Lafayette didn't win the game, but they found out a little more about who they are now.
I was going through my T-shirts last summer like I usually do, separating out those that deserved to stay in the wardrobe and the ones that would be relegated to dusting and car-washing duty. I came across my maroon Lafayette "6th Man" shirt, and pondered it for a moment. It's two sizes too big, the collar is too thick, and it's definitely not my color. Then I thought about how it stood for much more than partisan rooting, about that little loud and proud revolution it represented. I stashed it away in the closet, with the knowledge that the revolution wasn't really over - it's just in rebuilding mode.
"I can't throw that one out," I said to myself. "That one means something."