A season cut short: Lafayette knocked out of Patriot League first round

Paulius Zalys 19 dunks the ball. (Courtesy of Hana Isihara 17)

Paulius Zalys ’19 dunks the ball. (Courtesy of Hana Isihara ’17)

Emily Cohen

The Lafayette men’s basketball season came to an end this past Tuesday with another loss, this time to Navy in the first round of the Patriot League Tournament. The Leopards finished with an overall record of 6-24, going 3-15 in conference play.

“It wasn’t the record that we wanted or expected,” head coach Fran O’Hanlon said. “But I was proud of how competitive they were throughout – the resiliency of our team, and how they kept coming back.”

The season was a series of ups and downs as the team fought off injuries, adjusted to losing three 1,000-point starters to graduation and battled through a tough non- league schedule.

Lafayette played a number of close games throughout the season, six of them heading into overtime. That same tenacity showed at Navy on Tuesday, but the tenth-seeded Leopards ultimately lost 78-70 to the seventh-seeded Midshipmen.

Senior co-captain Bryce Scott led the team with a season-high 29 points, including seven 3-point baskets, while sophomore Matt Klinewski and junior Monty Boykins added 14 and 10 respectively.

“It was phenomenal,” said O’Hanlon of Scott’s performance. “Bryce is somebody who has been in two championships games in his career here, and he went out like a champion. He just gave everything he had. I could hardly take him off the floor.”

Although their record may not reflect growth, O’Hanlon saw tremendous improvement, especially in the second half of the season as younger players stepped into new roles behind great senior leadership.

This growth was apparent in the final home game of Lafayette’s regular season when freshmen Paulius Zalys and Auston Evans both set career highs, giving the Leopards the win and snapping a 12-game losing streak.

Although he started against Colgate at this senior day event, senior Zach Rufer was quickly removed from the game due to an ankle injury he sustained in the previous matchup against Bucknell. Junior co-captain Nick Lindner also sat out with a similar ankle injury, allowing Zalys and Evans, along with sophomore Eric Stafford, to step into more influential roles.

“I think he’s a tremendous talent and an extremely hard worker,” said Lindner of Zalys, who tallied 21 points in the senior day victory. “He’s very easy to lead and coach and I think that’s a really good quality about him. I think he’s going to have a really bright future.”

Zalys has been a key player for Lafayette since the beginning of the season, but started seeing true playing time once Patriot League play started.

“Coming in I knew Seth [Hinrichs] was leaving, so I knew I had an opportunity to play a lot,” Zalys said. “Not necessarily it was guaranteed – I had to fight for it – but I knew I had an opportunity. So since the first practices I really tried to play hard and show coach I could play with the older guys, and he trusted me a few games. And Ijust kept building on it.”

With five seniors graduating, and only four returning upperclassmen, Lafayette will continue rebuilding its program with strong freshmen experience and a talented incoming class.

“Having those young guys step up certainly reflects well for us as we go further here into the next year,” O’Hanlon said.

O’Hanlon will lose Scott, Rufer, forward Ben Freeland, center Nate Musters and forward Billy Murphy to graduation this year, while Lindner, Boykins, Klinewski and Stafford are prepared to lead a young team in the off-season.

“The league will be interesting because our senior class is pretty talented class across the league as well,” Freeland said. “So I feel like the program is moving in the right direction and has a great future for the next couple of years.”

As the team reflects on their season, appreciation for this senior class dominates the discourse.

“The thing I’m going to miss most about the seniors is the friendships you build,” Lindner said. “It’s truly a family type culture, especially on a basketball team.

As one of these seniors, Freeland values the opportunities the Lafayette program gave him over the course of four years. Not only was he a member of the Patriot League Championship team in 2015, but also enjoyed playing big name schools during his career, like Kentucky, Kansas and Stanford. “Stanford was probably one of my favorite moments…” said Freeland, a California native. “Just going home and playing at what was one of my dream schools – I always told myself, ‘I’m going to play on this court,’ and then go figure, I ended up playing on the opposite end of the court.”

While this year’s seniors had some memorable moments in their Lafayette careers, their teammates are what they will remember most about their time playing on the hill.

“Being a part of a team is such a big thing. It’s a close knit group of guys and without them I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”