Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
RADNOR — Kaeshawn Ward learned quickly there was one game on Eastern’s schedule that mattered just a little bit more.
Ward, a senior guard for the Eagles, hails from Norfolk, Va. so his knowledge of the “Battle of Eagle Road” was understandably limited when he arrived on campus four years ago. It didn’t take long for Ward to figure out the annual game with Cabrini was the one to circle.
Kaeshawn Ward (above) and Eastern won the final Battle for Eagle Road. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Ward can also say he never lost that game. Eastern downed the Cavaliers in their own gym 82-74 Wednesday night in the final chapter of the rivalry.
“That was like the first thing I heard about when I first joined this program, ‘the Cabrini game’s the big game.’ I mean, you got a rival school right across the street,” Ward said. “This game’s always fun to play. It’s packed every year, I love it. It’s always a good game and it was even bigger because this was the last time we were going to be able to play them.”
With Cabrini’s closure looming at the end of the 2023-24 academic year, the long-running series effectively ended with Eastern taking the blue Eagle Road street sign with them for longevity. Eastern sophomore Zubair Lee, who teamed with Ward to lead the way in Wednesday’s win, knew a little about the rivalry prior to college, but being a part of it brings out his most competitive side.
Whether it’s “the Cabrini game” or “the Eastern game,” both with just the right amount of venom injected into the inflection with which it is said, the contest mattered. A good crowd from both universities filled the gym, the requisite ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ joined the verbal disagreements with certain calls and the Eastern student contingents’ rendition of “Na, na, na, hey, hey, goodbye” the final chorus on a matchup that’s been defined by competitiveness the last two decades.
“I came here last year like ‘Battle of Eagle Road,’ what’s that? When they told me the lore and the story, I started to understand the rivalry, it’s a friendly rivalry but we wanted that dub,” Lee said. “We were already intending to come out here and be dogs, I know we started slow in the first half so that’s why we picked it up in the second half and decided to be us. We decided to go be Eastern University.”
Wednesday’s win marked the fifth straight in the series for Eastern and brought the teams to a level 11-11 since their PAC playoff meeting in February 2004. Cabrini will take the overall series lead with it, the Cavaliers having won 23 of the first 24 meetings and the Cavaliers will have a slight edge in the aggregate score over the last 22 games, outscoring Eastern 1,775-1,763.
Ryan Van Zelst (above) is in his first and only year as Cabrini's head coach. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Unfortunately, due to an exodus of players following this summer’s shocking announcement of Cabrini’s closure, there was no final women’s Battle of Eagle Road. Cavaliers coach Ryan Van Zelst, in his first and now only year at the university, lamented the end of a game that’s been an institution in the area.
“It’s great for the kids, these games are an awesome experience for the young guys. I told them, ‘I hope you at least had fun,’” Van Zelst said. “I mean, how many schools are right across the street, draw from the same type of student and student-athlete, you go out on a weekend or just to get something to eat and see each other. It was exciting being a part of it for my first time too. Obviously we want to win and it breaks my heart because I thought our guys really played hard.”
As for Wednesday’s game, it was quite good. The teams exchanged 12 leads and nine ties, neither having a lead of more than six points until an 8-0 punctuated by a Ward-to-Lee and-one with 1:32 left finally gave Eastern some breathing room.
Lee, a springy 6-foot-8 forward from Vorhees, NJ, put a big imprint on the game with 22 points, nine rebounds and five blocks while Ward, a 5-foot-10 workhorse guard, added 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists and three steals. Jaron Fairweather, the other half of Eastern’s imposing front court, had a double-double with 17 points, 11 rebounds and a steal.
It was the Eagles’ defense, specifically in the second half, that decided the game however.
“Our team’s nickname is the ‘Strap City Kings,’ that’s our motto, it’s what we go by. It’s a defensive team and we realized we were lacking in the first half,” Lee said. “We went out there and communicated, had faith in each other and we weren’t silent. The first half, we were just relying on basketball instincts.”
With a little creative gerrymandering, “Strap City” limits could easily extend across Eagle Road and it seemed that way after halftime. Following a scorching hot finish to the first half by Cabrini’s Donoven Mack left the Eagles trailing 45-39, Eastern wanted to ramp up the defensive efforts.
Lee chalked it up to being too quiet on the defensive end with a little bit of an adjustment to the smaller Cabrini lineup’s movement in its offense. With a renewed focus, Eastern held the Cavaliers to 10-of-30 shooting after halftime.
“We had to make some adjustments, we had a plan but we had to switch it up because they were getting whatever they wanted,” Ward said. “We had to be able to ‘guard our yard,’ that’s something our coaches always preach. A lot of times, we let them get to the rack too easily so we had to lock in and start defending.”
There also seemed to be a transitive effect from Lee getting four first half blocks and Ward leading an aggressive on-ball approach up top. Cabrini missed a handful of layups and took a few rushed shots in the second half, something the Eastern big man wants to see from any team he goes up against.
Zubair Lee skies for the dunk attempt. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“That’s my thing, I love going out there and doing that,” Lee said. “Rim-protecting, even if I don’t have to go and block the shot, I want to be there for my team and step up and help. It gives them an extra couple seconds to react, we like to scramble, so I do my thing, sit in the paint and whatever happens, I just like to see that defensive energy.”
Mack, a junior, was terrific for Cabrini with a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds. He out-scored Eastern 8-2 by himself in the final 1:38 of the first half to ignite the home fans going into the break.
The Cavaliers have a young roster, one that was also altered by players changing plans or looking for another option this summer. That, coupled with a challenging opening slate of games, has shown in the team’s 1-6 record so far.
Given that every player on the roster knows this is it for the program, their level of effort has been admirable and earned plenty of respect from their coach.
“You grow up watching ESPN, you see all those rivalries and think ‘that’s what I want to do,’ it’s part of the reason why you play sports. At our level, it’s a little bit different because sometimes the crowds are good, sometimes not but never like this,” Van Zelst said. “It’s very unique, we really wanted to win, but I hope they took something from that piece of it too.
“We have great young men and it’s a difficult situation, one where they probably don’t understand the gravity of it but something good comes from difficult situations.”
Ward admitted he threw that pass to Lee at the last second, but Lee certainly didn’t seem to mind as he laid the ball in through contact for the and-one, leading to a synchronized flex between the Eastern players on the floor. Lee called himself and Ward a “dynamic duo” and the sophomore big was just happy to get Ward and the rest of the Eastern seniors a final win in the rivalry and keep them undefeated against Cabrini.
“We just had to keep fighting, they were going to break eventually,” Ward said. “We put a lot of pressure on teams, teams get tired so eventually we’re going to put it away if we keep playing how we can play.”
Ward ended up as the caretaker of the Eagle Road street sign after the game, the senior keeping a firm grasp on it as he wove through a line of well-wishers and snapped plenty of photos. Had the game gone the other way and Cabrini taken control of the sign, it likely wouldn’t have gone on a ride into a cavernous warehouse like the famous ending of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” but the Eagles didn’t want to think about it either way.
“We realized had we lost, they were going to keep the sign and we’d never see it again,” Lee said. “That’s a traditional thing for us, that Eagle Road sign means a lot. It means a lot that for that last battle, I was here and able to defend that title.”
EASTERN 39 | 43 - 82
CABRINI 45 | 29 - 74
E - Zubair Lee 22, Kaeshawn Ward 20, Jaron Fairweather 17, Kevin Reeves 11, Eljay Morris 4, Arkese Claiborne 4, Olise Onyeka 4
C - Donoven Mack 23, Keenan Reiss 10, Eric Neal 8, Jayden Blakey 7, Bryan Warren 8, George Marion 8, Isaac Brady 2, Londen Pope 5, Jay Bonnet 3