DeShawn Lowman (above) and Neumann's terrific season came to an end Friday night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
ASTON -- Neumann coach Jim Rullo sat at the post-game press conference table. On his right were Carl Wallace and DeShawn Lowman; on his left was Darian Barnes.
The trio of seniors represented what had been the best era yet of Knights basketball: four straight league championship game appearances, the program’s first (and second) NCAA Tournament appearances, a school record for wins in a season.
And all of their careers had just come to an all-too-sudden end.
The Knights’ 96-93 loss to Nichols College (Mass.) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night marked the culmination of the greatest season in the school’s relatively short basketball history, which dates back to its start as an NAIA team in 1982.
“It’s upsetting that we lost, the legacy was supposed to go a lot further than it did,” said Lowman, the only one of the three who spent all four of his collegiate seasons at the southern Delaware County institution. “I still feel like this will be one of the greatest teams Neumann has ever had, that’s the way I feel.”
There’s really no debate.
Neumann’s 25 wins this year topped the previously mark -- set last year -- by three. The Knights won the CSAC championship for the second time ever, taking care of Gwynedd-Mercy 77-53 after earning the regular-season crown with a 17-1 record. Their only two regular-season losses came by a grand total of two points.
“My energy is going towards a senior group that has set the bar high here at Neumann with a 25-3 record, establishing themselves as a perennial national power,” said Rullo, who’s revitalized the program in four years since leaving his prior post at Malvern Prep.
But after getting blown out in their first NCAA appearance, losing by 28 to Mount Union in the 2015 first round, this seemed like the year for the Knights to take the next step forward and earn an NCAA victory.
The three seniors surrounding Rullo at the press conference table were 75 percent of the graduating class, along with Matt O’Keefe, who leads NU’s “Bench Mob” in cheering on the rest of the team.
“Our challenge as a coaching staff is to try to go out and try to recruit the next DeShawn Lowman, the next Darian Barnes and the next Carl Wallace,” Rullo said.
Easier said than done.
Lowman, who averaged 19.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 3.4 apg this season, graduates after earning CSAC Rookie of the Year honors, CSAC First-Team honors (3x), CSAC All-Academic honors (4x) and even getting a CoSIDA Academic All-District nod as a junior. Barnes, who arrived midway through last season, averaged 14.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 2.6 bpg, earning the CSAC Defensive Player of the Year award this year. Wallace, who played his only season at Neumann this year averaged 14.6 ppg and 8.7 rpg on the season.
Darian Barnes (above) finished his college career with a 22-point, 15-rrebound, 6-assist performance. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
They came from all over: Rullo discovered Lowman in a YMCA just after he took the job; Barnes was out of basketball for two years after playing two seasons at Harcum (2011-13) and Wallace arrived after previous stops at Barton CC (Kansas) and Millersville (Pa.), last playing in 2013-14.
And they meshed, quickly.
“We have a lifelong friendship from here on out,” Lowman said. “It’s a brotherhood where we can hit each other up anytime we want to, want to hang out and just chill, see each other, we can always do that. Play pick-up basketball, go watch a movie, anything. Through these years, we’ve definitely built a strong bond together.”
In their final game together, each shined. Wallace led the team with 23 points before fouling out in the game’s final two minutes. Barnes, who had foul issues earned, finished with a monster game: 22 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, four blocks and a steal. Lowman had 17 points, eight rebounds and seven dimes.
It just wasn’t quite enough to overcome a terrific game from Nichols freshman DeAnte Bruton, who had 28 points to lead five Bison in double figures. After a back-and-forth opening 20 minutes, Neumann led from the final seconds of the first half all the way within the five-minute mark, but in the end it was Nichols who hit the big shots.
Sophomore Marcos Echevarria provided the final lead change with a 3-pointer to put Nichols up 88-86 with 2:58 to play; the 5-10 guard knocked down six foul shots on six attempts in the final 2:09 to help seal the win.
The cupboard isn’t bare next year for Neumann, not by a long shot. Slated to return are current juniors Tyaire Hudson (11.7 ppg), DeAndre Williams (9.5 ppg), Billy Cassidy (8.2 ppg) and Tony Parker (5.8 ppg), who started a combined 47 games this year
But they and whoever follow are going to have to live up to the graduating class of 2017.
“It’s a challenging part as a coach is to get guys to buy into team, and these guys unconditionally bought into it for four years, and that’s the part that is exciting, that’s the part that we’re going to measure our new recruits to those standards,” Rullo said. “And if you don’t come with those standards, I think you’re going to want to go to another school, because the bar’s been set very, very high.”