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College Basketball: Hilbert’s big season ends in AMCC semis

Trevor Stark has the ball bounce off his hands in Hilbert’s loss to Medaille in the AMCC semifinals. (Photo by Michael J. Petro)
It’s safe to say, the Hilbert College men’s basketball program is on solid ground. Now, head coach Rob deGrandpre is in search of what will get the Hawks to the next plateau.

Although Hilbert was unable to take advantage of having home court for the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Tournament this weekend in losing to Medaille, the program has reached new heights and played in back-to-back conference semifinals over the past two seasons.

Those lean years experienced when deGrandpre first took over 11 seasons ago and then when the recession hurt recruiting at the private, liberal arts college in Hamburg several years ago seem to be a thing of the past.

Having made the conference tournament the past three seasons after winning only three games four years ago, Hilbert one-upped last year’s exciting success to set a new program win mark with a 20-6 record and won the regular season title for the first time since joining the AMCC in 2004-05.

Although among the three seniors lost this year is one of the program’s all-time best in Dan McFarland, the Hawks are scheduled to bring 13 players back and only one will be an upperclassman next year. In addition, recruiting never looked so promising as excitement for the program only grows.

“I think there’s enough in the cupboard to keep this thing going,” deGrandpre said. “Already this weekend, just a day after the season, I was back on the road to recruit. We’ve got to find that missing piece. And we can be very selective with that. There’s a lot of interest in the program. That’s the nice thing.”

Out of six losses this season, three came at the hands of defending AMCC champion Medaille, which also beat Hilbert in the conference semifinals last year. Medaille ended Hilbert’s season with a 72-69 win in the AMCC semifinals on Friday (Feb. 22). Penn State Behrend then won the conference title the next day, edging Medaille 63-60.

“We psyched ourselves out the first time we played Medaille and then the second time we had our chances,” deGrandpre said. “But you can’t put a good team at the line as many times as we did this time and they hit 11 of 22 threes. We had 20 more shots and 12 more offensive rebounds but we didn’t make the easy ones and didn’t defend well enough.”

As they did when clinching the conference regular season title in beating LaRoche, the Hawks again got a huge effort from their seniors. Guard Anthony Hodge matched Medaille’s Tyler Stevens and Jammal Coleman’s 19 points, while McFarland chipped in 15. Senior Isaac Bushey added 12 points and nine rebounds.

Freshman Jerame Owens added another double-double to his young career with 14 points and 12 rebounds. deGrandpre felt as though Owens was a strong candidate for the conference’s Rookie of the Year, which was to be announced this week.

Owens helped lead a Hilbert effort to clean the offensive boards, as the team doubled up the Mavericks in the paint with a 42-24 rebounding advantage and got credit for 13 second-chance points. The Hawks also forced 12 turnovers to Medaille’s eight.

Also in the game, McFarland earned two steals to become the Hawks’ career steal leader with 188. The game marked the end of a standout four-year career from the St. Mary’s High School graduate. McFarland finishes third all-time for Hilbert in scoring with over 1,500 points and finished with over 500 rebounds, as well. He also led the team this year in assists, finding his teammates for points as opponents clamped down on him more and more.

“He sacrificed a lot this year — he was a marked man every night and often was beaten to a pulp after games,” deGrandpre said. “His entire body of work is what stands out. He gave up opportunities to set up other guys. He saved his best for last and really looked good for us down the stretch.”

deGrandpre knew he had a number of key players back this year, but it didn’t start to set in just how big of season it could be until Hilbert won consecutive non-league road games in November, including a win over Alfred, and then got another big road victory at Keystone early next month. Keystone had beaten ninth-ranked Scranton.

After losing at Penn State Behrend, the only other AMCC team to beat Hilbert, the Hawks finished the 2012-13 regular season winning eight of their last nine games.

“We didn’t look great against St. John Fisher (in the Hilbert Tip-Off Tournament final to start the season), and that was a big measuring stick, so the jury was still out,” deGrandpre said. “But then little by little, we kept finding ways to win and won some key games.”

Although deGrandpre said Hilbert’s name has come up in discussions from those involved with the Division III Eastern Region, his team just didn’t have a strong enough schedule to merit an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament after losing in the AMCC semifinals.

deGrandpre believes getting to the championship game would have helped, but Hilbert was never ranked in the region all season, so the college would probably be on the outside looking in for the tournament.

“We had quality wins but other teams have had greater wins,” he said. “I’ve been politicking a lot for us, but a lot comes down to strength of schedule, so I’m not crossing my fingers.”

He’s hoping in the future that will not be the case.

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