It was perhaps a fitting ending for a Patriot League season that defied much logic anyway.
Colgate had just finished off a much-improved Lehigh squad at Cotterell Court, and despite going 3-10 in non-conference play, a victory by defending champion American at home over Bucknell would have given the Raiders a share of the league title for the first time in 19 years, as well as home court throughout the league tournament.
But, with very few fouls, the Colgate victory was quick and Bucknell-American still has a few minutes to go. So senior Ethan Jacobs commandeered a laptop near midcourt and watched as the Eagles mounted a furious comeback. As some of the fans still milling about the intimate gym saw the 6’10” Jacobs gesticulating toward the tiny machine, a crowd gathered to see what all the fuss was about.
American got within one, and when Marko Vasic – who was having the game of his collegiate life with 21 points – was fouled, the Eagles and transitively Colgate, has a chance to win it at the line. By now the crowd had reached 100 or so around the poor little laptop, with kids jumping and climbing to get a peek. Alas, Vasic missed both and although Pee Wee Gardner got one more chance from 40 feet or so, it wasn’t to be. Bucknell was the regular season champ, but Colgate – a senior-laden squad – could still celebrate one of its most successful regular season campaigns since the heyday of Adonal Foyle in Hamilton, and at least two rounds of home games this week.
There were seven seniors honored before the game Saturday at Cotterell Court and it looked like their careers might end with a whimper when they went 3-10 in non-conference play. But a closer look saw most of those losses were close, and the Raiders – the fifth most experienced team in the nation according to KenPom – just needed a little boost from their seniors in an extremely balanced league and, for the most part, they’ve gotten it.
“I’ll go all the way back to last year in conference play,” Colgate coach Matt Langel said. “Sometimes you have to figure out how to win close games. There’s no magic potion you can drink and there’s really nothing you can do in practice. Sometimes it just takes time. I credit our senior group for not throwing in the towel or saying, ‘Geez, we’ve tried everything we can.’ I challenged them right around Christmas time, and I know they had worked their tails off, but it wasn’t enough to that point, they had to find more in the tank, and they looked themselves in the mirror and accepted that responsibility.”
The Raiders also found an identity, or more appropriately, polished one. Colgate has been a slow-paced team full of shooters under Langel, but they were a little more deliberate this season (333rd in adjusted tempo and 349th in average possession length), allowing them to break down opponents and get good shots. They are ninth nationally in eFG% (56.1) and eighth in three-point shooting (40.3%), both of which were on display Saturday.
Key in the resurgence has been Jacobs, an Ohio transfer. With sharpshooters Matt McMullen (shooting 51.7% from three-point range and 13th nationally in eFG%), Damon Sherman-Newsome, and Austin Tillotson demanding plenty of attention, pick-and-pops tend to find Jacobs wide open for three-pointers that are nearly impossible to defend for a stretched out defense.
And, like they needed to on Saturday (holding Lehigh to just 23 points in the second half), the Raiders have done enough defensively (257th overall, but fourth in Patriot League play) to win games.
“Coach (Langel) talks a lot about knowing the identity of the game, and we knew Lehigh wasn’t going to give up,” Jacobs said. “Defense was key, especially the first two media time outs of the second half to show them we weren’t going to lose this game.”
It doesn’t take long for word to travel in tiny Hamilton, one of the more remote stops on the Division I circuit (but an absolutely gorgeous campus). But news of the team’s recent success has made the rounds, as Cotterell Court was nearly full Saturday and the school hopes to have a sell-out for Thursday’s game against the winner of Navy and Army.
“It was just a process,” Jacobs said. “We lost a couple of heartbreakers early in the season. We had a tough non-conference schedule on the road, and we knew we had the talent. We just had to keep working at it and buy into the process, and after that it all just started coming together. The best feeling is being part of something that hasn’t been done in a while. For alumni to go to work and be happy to say, ‘Did you see Colgate won again?’ is great.”
Will it be enough to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996? As we’ve said all season in the Patriot League, they have just as good a chance as anyone.
“There’s two pictures in our locker room of the two (Patriot League) championship teams (1995 and 1996), and there’s another picture frame hanging under those two with no picture in it,” Langel said. “I think they’re motivated by trying to be that next team. But you have to go out there and play a game. You have to win three in order to get it done. I’m really proud of their season and they’ve put themselves in position to have two home games. We’ll take a little bit of time and be ready for whoever we play on Thursday.”