The image is burned into Andrew Utate’s mind.
Lehman is clinging to a one-point lead as the final seconds tick off the game clock when City College of New York’s David Solano drills a three-pointer with 0.5 seconds to play to end the Lightning’s season in the City University of New York Athletic Conference tournament semifinals last February.
Nine months has done little to dull the pain.
“That’s the main thing in our heads,” Utate said. “We’re always thinking about it. It lingers in our heads, and we talk about it every day in practice. It was a tough loss.”
For the past four seasons — and in six of the last seven campaigns — the Lehman Lightning men’s basketball team has successfully reached the CUNYAC tournament semifinals, only to see their dream of a championship dashed each time. Now it is that inability to clear that semifinal hurdle that is motivating the Lightning this season.
“That game, that shot, it just makes us go harder in practice now,” Utate said. “We’re all focused on what we have to do, and I feel like we’re ready. I know it’s early, but I feel coming into the season — with the returning players we do have and the five new guys that we have — we’re a great contender.”
The Lightning return four starters from last season’s 17-10 team, led by Utate, as well as fellow seniors Jean Marcial, Luis Hernandez and John Brens. Key reserve Mylo Mitchell also returns. It’s a core that is both proud of its final four finishes in CUNYAC play each year of their careers while also being disappointed at each season’s final outcome.
“The fact that we made it to the semifinals for the past three years I’ve been here shows we’re one of the top four teams each year in CUNY,” Utate said. “But it’s also frustrating that we can’t get over the hump of the semifinals. I don’t know what it is. It’s kind of like the ‘Lehman Curse.’ But I do feel confident enough to say that we’re getting past the semifinals this year.”
This season the Lightning’s roster is senior-laden, which is promising from an experience perspective — but also one which could cause some unintended problems.
“We have good leadership with Drew and Jean Marcial,” Lehman head coach Steve Schulman said. “We have eight seniors, and sometimes that can work either way because it’s going to be hard for all of them to get playing time. But I think that experience will be good for us at the end of the year.”
Utate thinks there will be additional help coming from several new faces on the roster this season.
“We have Tevon Bennett who is from New Jersey and he can flat out play,” Utate said. “He can come off the bench or he could start and he can put down numbers. We also have Miguel Haboosh from Uruguay who has a big body and he can shoot the rock. He’s going to help us a lot. And we have Fred Truss from Yonkers who is athletic, and he can defend.”
Lehman was picked second in the CUNYAC preseason poll this season, but Utate thinks the conference coaches sold Lehman a little short.
“I’m disappointed because I thought we should have been picked No. 1 since we have all these returners coming back,” Utate said. “Four of our five returners averaged between 10 and 15 points, so I think it’s going to be a real special year.”
While Schulman says last year’s tournament loss still sits with him, he is now focused on this season and leading his team to its first CUNYAC title since 2004.
“I’m excited and ready for this year,” Schulman said. “The guys know we want to get back to that spot this year and get it done. The talent level is definitely there, so they just got to make the commitment to unselfish play. If they do that, I won’t be surprised if we’re not right back in that same spot trying it again.”