Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
As wide-open as the Patriot League was all season, postseason victories usually come hand-in-hand with two things: guard play and experience.
And when it mattered the most, Lafayette got plenty of both.
Sophomore Nick Lindner led the way with a huge performance on the biggest stage of his career, while seniors Seth Hinrichs and Dan Trist came up with big plays late as Lafayette won the Patriot League title, 65-63.
It was the first Patriot League championship for Lafayette (20-12) since 2000, which was also the last time the Leopards hosted the league championship.
Sitting up on the podium afterwards, donning his Patriot League championship t-shirt and hat, Hinrichs was still absorbing all that had just happened.
"It's a surreal feeling," the fifth-leading scorer in Lafayette history said. "Obviously this is what you work for for all four years, and to be a senior and close off the year with a Patriot League championship is all that you can hope for. I can't put it into words what it's like right now, but it's...yeah, it's awesome."
That Lafayette was even hosting the title game was a first in league history. In the previous 24 years of Patriot League men's basketball action, the No. 1 seed had advanced to the final; Lafayette, the No. 4 seed, ended that in the semifinals by knocking off top-seeded Bucknell on the road.
"I thought coming into the season, we had a chance to be as good as anybody," Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon said. "This league has as much parity as I've seen it in recent memory. Coming into the playoffs I didn't think there was any team that was going to upset anybody, I thought everybody had a chance to beat anybody."
No. 6 American (17-16) had also been road warriors during the playoffs, downing No. 3 seed Lehigh in the quarterfinals before winning at No. 2 Colgate to make it to the finals. And the Eagles made a run at making its second NCAA Tournament in a row, despite facing a Kirby Sports Center crowd that had never been louder.
After Lafayette’s 12-point, second-half lead had become a two-point edge in favor of American, it was Hinrichs who hit the biggest shot of the night to that point, a 3-pointer from the left wing to put the Leopards up 56-55 with four minutes to play.
Junior guard Zach Rufer came up huge on a Lafayette possession a minute later with the score the same, first saving a rebound on a Lindner miss and then canning a massive 3-pointer from the corner with a hand in his face to make it a four-point game.
It was even more clutch considering Lafayette's usual sharpshooter, senior Joey Ptasinski, was on the bench with cramps.
"I thought that Rufer coming in, he had a huge rebound, he hits a big 3 for us," O'Hanlon said. "And we needed that, Joey was hurt, he was on the bench. It was a real team effort to win that game."
American's Darius "Pee Wee" Gardner would make it a one-point game with 1:06 to play on a 3-pointer that made it 61-60, but Lafayette came up with the plays it needed down the stretch.
Lindner's twisting, up-and-under layup helped his team restore a three-point advantage, and then, after John Schoof missed a 3-pointer for American on the other end, his foul shots with 13 seconds remaining helped seal the win.
The 5-foot-11 point guard out of Germantown Academy finished with a game-high 25 points, continuing a hot streak he's been on since missing a game back on Feb. 9 due to illness. Since then, his 10 ppg average has jumped up to above 18, culminating in perhaps the best game of his two-year college career on the biggest stage yet.
"He's done a great job all year," O'Hanlon said. "The last seven or eight games he's been as good as he's played all season."
Hinrichs, a 6-7 senior wing, finished with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including both of his 3-point attempts, as the only other Leopard player in double figures. Trist only finished with six points and seven rebounds, but had a clutch layup with 80 seconds left off a feed from Lindner before Gardner's 3-point shot.
It's the third Patriot League championship for the Leopards under O'Hanlon, who's nearing the end of his 20th season at the Easton college of 2,400 undergrads, as well as the first 20-win season since the last time they went dancing.
Now Lafayette will have to wait until Sunday to find out their seed and where they'll be playing; the Leopards could end up in a play-in game in Dayton on Tuesday, or will could also slot in as either a 15-seed or a 16-seed in one of the regionals that begin Thursday and Friday.