Confidence was high for Lehman College stepping on the court at City College last Friday. And that should be no surprise — it was the City University of New York Athletic Conference championship game after all.
The Lightning came into the game riding the wave of a 14-game winning streak, had not lost since Jan. 5 at York College, had posted a sterling 15-1 conference record this season — along with 22 overall victories — and even managed to get by the semifinal round of the CUNYAC tournament after three straight stumbles the past three seasons.
And the Lightning’s opponent, the College of Staten Island? Yeah, Lehman had already knocked the Dolphins off twice in the regular season, and now stood just 40 minutes away from raising their first championship banner in 14 years.
But woeful foul shooting, including one vital miss with two seconds remaining in the game, cost the Lehman its championship dream, dropping a heartbreaking 77-75 decision to Staten Island.
“We came into the game very confident,” said Lehman senior Andrew Utate. “We were on our 14-game winning streak, and every game we played we thought we were going to win. But we missed 15 free throws. We picked the championship game to have our worst free throw shooting game.”
Lehman sank just 14-of-29 free throws in the game, but it was a critical miss by Luis Hernandez with two seconds to play that hurt the most.
The Lightning (22-5) had trailed by as many as 12 points in the game — their largest deficit of the season — several times in the game, with the final one coming with 7:33 to play when Lehman trailed 67-55. But the Lightning proceeded on a 14-2 run, capped by Jean Marcial’s layup to knot the score at 69 with 3:46 remaining.
But CSI didn’t wilt as the Dolphins scored the next five points, building a 74-69 lead. Utate nailed a three-pointer for Lehman to pull the Lightning back within 74-72. But the Dolphins answered with another pair of free throws with 13 seconds to play for a 76-72 advantage.
A layup by Lehman’s Mylo Mitchell again pulled the Lightning within two with eight seconds to play. And when CSI’s Adeola Latunji missed two free throws with six seconds to play, it opened the door for Lehman.
Hernandez rebounded Latunji’s second miss and raced down the floor, only to be fouled with 1.7 seconds to play. Hernandez, who had a game-high 29 points, hit the first free throw to pull Lehman within 76-75. But he missed the second, allowing Latunji to grab the rebound and draw the foul with 0.7 seconds to play.
He promptly hit the first free throw and missed the second, but Lehman could not get a desperation shot off in time, and their thrill-ride of a season was finished.
“When we tied it at 69-69, there we had the momentum, and we felt pretty good,” Utate said. “I honestly thought we had it because we all know how to close out games. We’ve been there before, so we felt we were going to pull this one out, too.”
It was a quiet Lehman locker room after the game.
“Luis is hurting, everybody is,” Utate said. “We have 10 seniors on this team, and for us to end our careers on a loss like that is very tough. It would have been great to end our careers by getting a championship for Lehman, and having one of the best seasons at the this school.
“But we are all feeling it, not just Luis. I know he’s a strong kid and he loves basketball, but he’ll be fine. At the end of a game, I’d rather have him shooting free throws than anybody else.”
There was hope, however faint, that the Lightning would still snag a rare at-large bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. But that final hope was dashed Monday afternoon when Lehman failed to hear its name called by the NCAA selection committee.
Now with his collegiate career officially over, Utate talked about what he was going to miss most.
“Just playing basketball for Lehman College,” Utate said. “Everything about Lehman College, the environment, the staff, the people, the professors. I just love Lehman College.
“Since I came in here in my freshman year, they made me who I am now. I could not have accomplished everything I’ve done without everybody that I’ve met. My teammates, my coaches, everyone at Lehman. I’m going to miss it.”