Thirteen points. That’s all that separates the Lehman College men’s basketball team from an unbeaten regular season.
A pair of three-point losses back in November — one coming in overtime — and a seven-point upset on the road at York College in early January are the only blemishes on the Lightning’s record so far this season.
So it was a little anti-climatic when Lehman got a game-winning layup from senior guard Luis Hernandez with 1.3 seconds to play to knock off the College of Staten Island 83-82 last Saturday at the Apex. Anti-climatic because two nights earlier, Lehman’s victory at Medgar Evers already had sealed the City University of New York Athletic Conference regular-season championship for the Lightning.
No matter, a win is a win, and that’s all the Lightning have been doing since their last loss Jan. 5. The victory, the 12th straight for Lehman (20-4 overall, 14-1 in CUNYAC), also gives the school its first 20-win season in a decade.
“Every game counts, and games like this in the 12-game winning streak, this has been the only close one,” said senior Andrew Utate, who finished with 10 points and four rebounds. “So we needed this because going into the playoffs. Whoever we play is going to throw something at us defensively. So games like this, close games, are very important.”
The Lightning displayed their usual pick-your-poison offense as four different Lehman players scored in double figures. Hernandez was the ringleader with 32 points — just one off his career high — while Mylo Mitchell finished with 21 points, and Jean Marcial contributed 13 points and 11 rebounds.
It’s that kind of offensive balance that makes the Lightning so dangerous.
“That’s the thing that we have, you don’t know who is going to step up every day,” Hernandez said. “It could be me, it could be Jean, could be Drew, could be Mylo, could be Tevon (Bennett). It could be anybody, because we all just play so well together.”
It’s not just that Lehman possesses so many elite scorers. It’s the diversified contributions from the senior-dominated team that usually spells an opponent’s demise.
“It’s good because we have so many scorers and so many options,” Utate said. “We’re already used to Luis doing what he does and Mylo hitting his threes. And Jean is offensively gifted. But what he does best is play defense, and I just bring a little bit of everything.”
Lehman’s roll through the CUNY regular season was set to end with their final home game — and the last game of the regular season — this past Tuesday. Then it’s off to the CUNYAC tournament where the Lightning earned a first-round bye by winning the regular-season crown.
That means Lehman’s first game in the tourney will be in the semifinals Feb. 20, facing either Hunter or John Jay. A victory there would send them into the finals on Feb. 23 versus either Staten Island or Baruch.
But getting past the semifinal round has proven a huge stumbling block for the Lightning as they have lost there the last four seasons. That includes a 73-71 loss to City College last year on a three-point shot with just a half-second to play.
“We talk about it, but we just got to take every game as it comes,” Utate said. “We’re feeling really confident going into the tournament. We just feel our recipe is working. We just got to keep doing what we’re doing and just trust in each other, because everyone knows how we like to play. No on cares who gets the ball. It’s defense first and the offense will come.
“The playoffs are a whole different animal, but we’ll be ready for them.”
The Lehman seniors know the end of their careers will be here shortly. But their plan is to make their final season last as long as they can. There is business to attend to, semifinal shortcomings of the past to overcome, and a chance to raise the first men’s basketball championship banner at Lehman in 14 years.
“For all us seniors, this is it,” Utate said. “No more college basketball after this, so ending senior year with a ring doesn’t sound too bad. And getting that new banner up there, that would be perfect.”
Hernandez would love to stroll into the Apex next season and say he was part of something special.
“To win the tournament would be exciting because whenever I walk into the gym I can look up at the banner and say, ‘See, we worked hard and hard work paid off,’” Hernandez said. “CUNY champs 2018. I would be excited for that.”