The banner hangs high above the Lehman bench, a testament to past Lightning glory. It reads: “2004 CUNY Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Champions,” and it has hung in place for the past 14 seasons.
Last year, Lehman thought it had the team to hang a new companion banner in the radters with a City University of New York Athletic Conference title. But a three-point basket with just a half-second to play by City College bounced Lehman in the semifinals of the CUNYAC tournament.
It’s a sting that lingers to this day.
“That CCNY loss at the buzzer last year hurt, it still hurts,” Lehman senior Jean Marcial said. “The majority of us are still on the team again this year, and we’re playing really well. So hopefully this is the year we get over that hump.”
Lehman is certainly playing like a title contender as victories over York College and John Jay last week extended the Lightning’s winning streak to eight, improving to 16-4 on the season and 11-1 in the CUNYAC. Lehman now holds a two-game lead over the College of Staten Island with just four regular-season games remaining.
The 88-63 victory over York helped avenge Lehman’s only conference defeat of the season when the Lighting were surprised 81-76 back on Jan. 5. The upside, however, was that was the last time Lehman would taste defeat.
But last week’s game? Never in doubt, almost from the start.
Lehman allowed York to hang around in the early moments with the Lightning holding slim leads though the game’s first 10 minutes. But then when the switch flipped, Lehman built a comfortable 42-26 advantage by halftime.
The Lightning simply toyed with York in the second half, maintaining leads as large as 27 points as Lehman dominated on both ends of the floor.
Marcial led three Lehman scorers in double figures with 23 points, while Luis Hernandez added 19 and Andrew Utate finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.
“York is the one team that beat us early in the season,” Utate said. “After they beat us, we went on this winning streak, so this one was big for us. It also shows we can beat anybody.”
Six of the eight streak victories have been by at least 17 points.
“Every practice, every game is a step toward getting better and better,” Uate said “We’re obviously contenders, but we’re not at our peak yet.”
Ironically, it was the loss at York almost a month ago that Marcial credits with kickstarting the Lightning’s torrid play.
“We went to York and we were a little ahead of ourselves,” Marcial said. “But that loss kind of woke us up to the sense that we are better than how we played in that game. So we’ve just been trying to focus every day in practice. When we’re locked in, I don’t think any team in the league can stay with us for 40 minutes.
“I feel like we can get better, and we are getting better.”
The Lightning is a very dangerous offensive team with any number of players capable of stepping up on any given night. After Marcial paced Lehman over York, it was Hernandez’s turn versus John Jay when the senior guard erupted for 31 points while Utate added 22 and Mylo Mitchell chipped in 12.
It’s a case of pick your poison with the Lightning.
“You don’t know who is going to show up,” Utate said. “It could be me, it could be Luis, it could be Mylo, or it could be Jean. When we all show up, then that’s fun.”
Which has been the case every night of the winning streak.
“When we run I don’t feel anyone can really stay with us,” Marcial said. “Especially the way we trust each other, where anyone can take the shot. We can have a six-point lead, and the next thing you know it’s 18. We just handle our business.”
The next order of business will be to lock up the CUNYAC regular-season title and secure the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament that is set to tip off Feb. 17. Then it’s time to go to work about securing that long-overdue new championship banner.
“It would be amazing to go out as seniors with a championship,” Utate said. “It’s been 14 years. It would end our college careers with a bang.
“Get the title, go far in the NCAAs. Hey, you never know.”