Back in early December, after they had just dropped their CUNY Athletic Conference opener to John Jay, it looked as though the Lehman Lightning — at 1-5 — was destined for a second straight forgettable season.
Lightning head coach Steve Schulman urged calm, saying it was just a matter of time before all the new faces on the Lehman roster became more familiar with each other. Better days, Schulman said, were on the horizon. Patience was all that was required.
But those better days came faster than even Schulman thought as the Lightning peeled off 15 wins over their next 21 games, finishing the overall season 16-11 and tying for second place in the conference with a robust 9-5 mark.
And it was that success by a young Lehman team that made their CUNYAC tournament semifinal loss that much easier to stomach. Even after the third-seeded Lightning’s 70-57 loss to No. 2 Baruch, better days are still on the horizon for Schulman’s program.
“When we were 1-5, if you would have told me we’d finish tied for second in the conference and reach the semifinals, I would have signed up for that,” Schulman said. “It really was a fun season. This was a fun group to be around.”
And for big chunks of the game against Baruch, it looked like the good times were going to continue right into the conference championship game as the Lightning led most of the first half before trailing just 33-27 at the intermission.
Baruch, which had routed Lehman by 35 points in their last encounter on Feb. 15, then built a 15-point lead midway through the second half. But Lehman showed no quit. In fact, the Lightning staged a spirited rally and pulled within 62-57 on a bucket by Gian Batista with 2:24 to play to keep Lehman’s hopes of a title game appearance alive.
But unfortunately for the Lightning, that’s where their championship dream died as Lehman went cold offensively and Baruch scored the final eight points of the game to end the Lightning’s season.
“We made five (defensive) stops in a row which was great, but we didn’t make a basket ourselves in that stretch,” Schulman said. “Then they banged a three and pushed their lead to eight, and that was that. We had our chances, but we just didn’t take advantage of them.”
Baruch’s George Smythe inflicted the bulk of the damage on Lehman, scoring a good portion of his game-high 25 points in the final moments to seal the victory for the Bearcats.
“It was a tight game until about two minutes left,” Schulman said. “But (when) they pushed it up to eight or nine, the wind went out of our sails.”
Despite the loss, both Schulman and sophomore guard Will Feldman are looking to next year as a breakthrough season for the Lightning.
“We have seven of our top eight guys back next year,” Feldman said. “We definitely have all the pieces we need. We just have to put it together. We have to learn how to close games out and we have to learn to stick together when times get a little tough. I think that by next year we will be able to do all that.”
Lehman’s rebound from last season’s 9-17 disappointment proves the Lightning’s rebuild is ahead of schedule, at least according to the team’s coach.
“Major progress this year,” said Schulman, who just completed his 20th season at Lehman. “Last year we took a big step back, and this year was Phase One of a two-part cycle. We do things in a two-year cycle because of the amount of junior college players we recruit. Now I think next year we’ll be one of the better teams.”
The young Lightning will use this season’s experience as a means of achieving even loftier goals next year, Feldman said.
“I think the year was actually really good for us,” said Feldman, who finished with a team-high six assists. “Even though we didn’t get to where we wanted to go, we saw improvement throughout the year. Next year we’re getting most of our guys back, and now we definitely know what we need to do to get to the next level.
“We know we have the talent, but I think having one more year under our belt and playing with each other in the off-season will really help our chemistry.”