ANNVILLE – At some point of the season – perhaps before it ever began – if you would’ve told the Lebanon College men’s basketball team that it was going to go 8-3 and finish second in the MAC Commonwealth Conference, the Flying Dutchmen would’ve taken it. But somewhere along the line, as the COVID-19-clouded campaign progressed, that simply became not good enough.
At some point during this upcoming postseason, that value will return for LVC.
On Thursday night at LVC’s Lou Sorrentino Gymnasium, the Flying Dutchmen were defeated on their home floor by Albright, 82-77 in the MAC Commonwealth Conference championship game. Lebanon Valley fell into a double-digit hole during the early moments of the second half, and couldn’t claw its way out of it.
After starting 6-0, Lebanon Valley finished the season with back-to-back home defeats and an 8-3 overall mark. Albright was crowned the champion of the MAC Commonwealth Conference with a 7-3 record.
“We finished first in the regular season, and we finished second in the playoffs,” said Lebanon Valley head coach Brad McAlester. “We have a young team. We had a great season. I’m very happy with what we accomplished this season.
“It was a rebuilding year,” continued McAlester. “We’ve got most of these guys back. It’s very positive moving forward. Eight-and-three is a respectable record in anyone’s mind and we lost to a good team.
“I’d say that sounds about right,” said Lebanon Valley senior guard Justin Baker, a product of Lebanon High. “I probably would’ve told you we wanted to go 10-0. I thought we had the best team in the league. We should’ve won this game.
“To be completely honest, at the beginning of the season, I didn’t even think we were going to have one game,” added Baker. “But we did everything correct. We didn’t go out, we stayed to ourselves and we did what we had to do. Sometimes that’s not easy when you’re in college.”
Down 50-41 six minutes into the second half, the Flying Dutchmen went on an 10-2 spree to pull within 52-51 of the Lions, on a Zach Tucker lay-in. Included in the burst were five points from Luis Garcia and Collin Jones’ old-fashioned three-point play.
But Albright responded with its own 15-1 run to push its advantage back to 67-52, with 7:52 to go. The closest the Flying Dutchmen could come the rest of the way was 73-69, on a foul shot from Tucker, with 2:08 remaining.
“We didn’t play well, but we were still in the game,” said McAlester. “We kept fighting back. We kept working. But we also kept digging holes.”
“We didn’t do much of that this year,” said Baker of playing from behind. “We played with the lead most of the season. Tonight, we played from behind the whole time. We were just clawing and clawing.”
In the final organized basketball game of his career, Baker converted ten of his 13 field goal attempts and led Lebanon Valley with 24 points. Jones netted 18 Flying Dutchmen points, while Garcia tallied 14 and Tucker had ten.
Defensively, LVC encountered difficulties containing Albright center Corey Simmons, who amassed 24 points and 12 rebounds. The Lions outscored the Flying Dutchmen 27-12 from three-point land.
“They (the Lions) played well. They shot the ball well from the three-point line,” said McAlester. “But they didn’t go nuts. It’s not like they made a ton, but we didn’t score, which made it seem worse.
“The big kid (Simmons) hurt us,” McAlester added. “They really looked to him. In the beginning, we did a good job of doubling him. But we got lazy and got away from it.”
“It wasn’t our worst game all year,” said Baker. “But it feels the worst. They killed us on the boards. The ‘big’ had 24. We just couldn’t stop him.”
For the first 11 minutes of the contest, Lebanon Valley enjoyed the better of the play. The Flying Dutchmen led 10-6 on a lay-up by Baker, 17-12 courtesy of a foul shot from Baker and 19-15 on a Bryce Diehl jumper.
“When you get behind, you’ve just got to stick with the game plan,” said McAlester. “Just try to run your stuff. You’ve got to stop the other team. We needed big ‘stops’ and we didn’t make them. They (the Lions) shot 56 percent in the second half, and you can’t win that way. Our defense was fair at best.”
“It’s just devastating,” said Baker. “We worked so hard the entire season. We did everything right. We got all the way here, and losing’s tough.”
Late in the first half, Albright held Lebanon Valley score-less for a 4:50 span to turn a 23-20 deficit into a 30-23 lead. The Lions enjoyed a 39-30 advantage at the break.
“At the beginning of the season, we just wanted to play,” said McAlester. “We got all ten (games) in and had no COVID-19 issues. It was a very positive season. They’re (his players) all very down right now. But they’ll be much better in the future.”
“The hardest part is leaving everybody, leaving the guys,” said Baker. “This is my family. Now I’ve got to go out into the world and find a job. Hopefully, I can be in coaching one day. I don’t want to leave basketball just like that.
“It really only hit me during the postgame speech,” continued Baker. “Coach said, ‘Thanks for four great years.’ And I just started crying. I’ve been on a basketball team for the last 17 years of my life, and now it’s over.”