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College Sports: Hilbert with reason to celebrate

Hilbert players celebrate the men’s basketball team’s first regular season conference title since joining the AMCC almost a decade ago. Students also stormed the court after the overtime win. (Photos courtesy of Michael J. Petro)

Senior leader Dan McFarland (pictured above top) and sophomore Trevor Stark each take their turn cutting down the net after Hilbert’s win.

Hawks earn right to host AMCC Tourney after winning title

Rob deGrandpre shared the kind of moments with his players and team supporters Saturday (Feb. 16) that he wasn’t sure he’d ever get to experience at Hilbert College.

The Hilbert’s men’s basketball team and the athletics program, as a whole, have gone on quite the journey to reach the point in which fans stormed the court in celebration when the final buzzer sounded and players and coaches cut down the nets at the end of a regular season finale at Hafner Recreation Center.

In one of the most significant happenings for Hilbert College athletics since joining the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference in 2004-05, the Hawks’ basketball team clinched a first-ever regular season title and the conference’s top-seed in the upcoming tournament with a 79-75 overtime win over LaRoche.

Leading most of the way — at one point by 11 in the first half, Hilbert withstood a furious comeback from a LaRoche team with a distinct size advantage and then outscored the conference’s front-runner 12-8 in the extra session with first-place on the line. The Hawks continued a program-best 20-5 season and will now host the AMCC semifinal games and championship on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22-23.

“It’s a very resilient group and over the last few weeks some of our wins have not been pretty but they’ve been gutsy and we’re finding different ways to get it done,” said deGrandpre, whose team extended its win streak to six games. “Every time something didn’t go our way, somebody on our end just made a play to keep us an inch ahead.”

In deGrandpre’s first season 11 years ago, Hilbert was a one-win basketball team and just as recently as 2008-09, he went back to the drawing board to rebuild after losing the program’s all-time scoring and assist leaders.

“The first thing I thought about was 11 years ago being a 1-25 team and not knowing if we were ever going to get this going,” deGrandpre said. “But little by little, brick by brick, I can now take a deep breathe and say, ‘we’ve gotten to the point where you’ve got to take us serious because we’re pretty darn good.’ And it feels great.”

deGrandpre also feels good for his three upperclassmen — Dan McFarland, Isaac Bushey and Anthony Hodge, who couldn’t have celebrated Senior Day in a better manner and earned all the praise they received afterward. The three combined for 44 points, accounted for Hilbert’s first eight in overtime and helped lead a scrappy effort.

“Anthony’s family was here to see him play so he was excited and riled up about that and he’s been a force all year. McFarland’s been doing it steady for four years now,” said Bushey, a transfer from Jefferson Community College. “When you’ve got guys like that who can score the ball, it takes a lot of pressure off some of the other guys who can just play defense, rebound and do the little things.

“I feel like we are the perfect team. We’ve got scorers, and people that work and hustle — it’s a great combination,” he added.
Anthony Hodge scored a game-high 23 points as he celebrated Senior Day in fashion in Hilbert's conference title-clinching win over LaRoche. (Photo by Michael J. Petro)

Hodge relentlessly drove to the basket and converted two lay-ups in traffic during the extra session to score four of his game-high 23 points. The Plattsburgh State transfer seemed to have an answer every time LaRoche got close.

“When we picked him up a year ago from Plattsburgh, after he had two years of junior college under his belt, the report on him was that you’re going to have to live with some things, like shot selection is not always the best, but he’s going to make a lot for you, too,” deGrandpre said. “That’s kind of how Ant goes. He’s a 5-foot-9 guy who plays like he’s 6-3 or 6-4. He gets up and plays above the rim. He just makes plays.”

McFarland, who finished with 13 points and tied the schools’ all-time steals mark, has been the main block in which the Hawks rebuilt after the graduation of the school’s all-time scoring leader Dallas Reinhardt in 2009. Hilbert’s gotten better every year since McFarland began playing for the school as a freshman during a 3-22 season.

“Our seniors really played well, and McFarland — what can you say; the guy does it all,” deGrandpre noted.

Sophomore guard Trevor Stark finished with 20 points, knocking down 3 of 4 three-pointers. He also nailed both of his free throw attempts in overtime as Hilbert went 6 for 6 in the extra session. Ryan Brewster, who came in the game early in overtime once starting center Jerame Owens (13 points) fouled out, also nailed both of his free throws after coming into the game 1 for 10 from the line.

LaRoche outrebounded Hilbert 51-33 and used three put-back baskets in the final few minutes of the game to tie it 67-67 at the end of regulation. Joel McIntosh scored a team-high 13 points and led a contingent of three rebounders with at least eight boards for LaRoche. But in the final minutes of the overtime, Bushey and Brewster both showed their toughness by ripping crucial rebounds away from opponents and being sent to the line.

Bushey was also happy to see at the game many of the seniors from last year’s team, which at the time set a new AMCC mark for the program in wins and then finished as conference semifinalists.

“This is a great group of guys and we keep continuing to grow as a program,” said Bushey, who missed some of the season after being banged up. “People are going to have to watch out for us. It’s just a resilient group of guys. We recruit good people and they want to be part of the program and we’re winning now.”

The added reason for elation around the Hilbert campus is that the basketball team has garnered the college’s first regular season division title as a member of the highly-competitive AMCC, which could help serve as a rallying point and contribute to laying the groundwork for the college’s entire athletics department.

“It’s a great moment for the college in general,” said deGrandpre, whose team will next take to the court leading off a semifinal doubleheader Friday at 6 p.m. after earning a quarterfinal bye. “Not all of our teams have been able to have immediate success in the AMCC. We’ve been pretty good over the years but we haven’t gotten to the point where we’re playing for the championship. Now, we’re putting ourselves in a great position where we’re hosting the semifinal round and don’t have to play Tuesday.”

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