Robert Stevens, General Assignments Reporter
So far, 2021 has allowed the difficult events of 2020 to come full circle in the most beautiful of ways. The crowning of the Utica College men’s basketball team with its first Empire 8 championship in program history against St. John Fisher by a score of 89-65 is evidence of that.
The Utica College community and the team faced the tragic loss of Christopher Bamba last summer. The team unified, faced tragedy head-on and dedicated its season to Bamba. Unity proved to be imperative to a title run that took five years under Head Coach Sean Coffey to create.
“I was really happy for our players and their families because they have this for the rest of their lives,” Coffey said. “They’ve etched their names in the history of our program and of our athletic department.”
Hunter Remley, a graduate student at Utica College, has been with Coffey since the beginning of both of their collegiate careers. This championship allowed Remley to have a Cinderella ending as he closes his career on top as a Pioneer.
“It was full circle,” Remley said. “I looked over at Bamba’s jersey and it all comes at you pretty quick. Four days later and it’s starting to set in that this hasn’t been done here. This is the first time ever. I keep watching the videos nonstop because I’m just trying to relive that same moment.”
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Before getting to the top, the team’s story unfolded in waves. It wasn’t the usual ladder to the top of the mountain, but the team’s commitment to success remained a consistent element in an eight-part journey this academic year.
On Again, Off Again
It was announced on Nov. 24 that winter sports would be pushed back from its typical start time. President Laura Casamento and the Presidents’ Council reached a unanimous decision for this delay. They also approved March 1 as the tentative start date for the basketball schedule. The season didn’t start until March 10.
The difficulty didn’t end there for winter athletes. Practices were expected to start at the beginning of February pending their coach and player preferences. For men’s basketball, the transition between the start of practices to games was rocky.
Kobe Lufkin, a senior guard, emphasized the struggle of hitting hard mentally. The constant shifts of mask mandates made things difficult in adjusting to the game with conditioning.
“It had a lot of ups and downs and was overall a roller coaster of a season,” Lufkin said. “A few times we looked forward to practice and playing and then it would just be taken away from us before we knew it. It was a mental struggle.”
It was on June 23 that the college community and team would hear of the tragedy of Bamba. He was heading into his sophomore year when he lost his life in High Falls. A player that embodied excellence both on and off the court, Bamba made an impact wherever he stood. When players and students returned to campus last fall, they ensured that the number five would be remembered.
One way the team would honor Bamba was through the team’s apparel. According to Lufkin, everything had a tie to Bamba.
“There were a bunch of things we did to honor him this season,” Lufkin said. “Our travel suits had the number five on it. Our shooting shirts had the number five on them and specifically the travel suit jacket. We remember that being his favorite jacket and waiting for that to come in for the longest time so we dedicated that to him.”
The team continued in the path of remembering Bamba by retiring the number five and leaving a seat for him on the bench every game with his jersey laid out. Additionally, they gave Bamba a few seconds on the court with them each game.
“When we finally got back to the court, every single game and every time we went in we had a moment of silence for Bamba,” Remley said. “We all just wanted to do it for him. He was always there with us.”
The Season Tips Off
Utica opened its season against Elmira on March 10 in Speidel Gymnasium. Right out of the gates, the Pioneers gave fans a virtual foreshadowing of the season in an 82-44 blowout victory.
Four players scored double-digit points, including the Empire 8 Rookie of the Year, Damien Call, who had 11 points in 19 minutes while shooting 100 percent from the field.
The Pioneers went on to smother Keuka College two days later by a score of 92-71 before coming home to Miga Court against Alfred University.
A long-awaited return home for the first time in 389 days. When the final second ticked off, everyone knew it was worth the wait as Utica beat Alfred 89-57 to go 3-0 overall. For the players, it was enough to walk to the end line and salute their fallen brother with a poster hanging with the number five.
Falling to the Powerhouses
Following the team’s hot start to the season, the St. John Fisher Cardinals came to Miga Court and stole an undefeated season right from under the Pioneers’ feet. Going into halftime, the Pioneers led Fisher 44-31. That changed when the team’s opened the second half.
The Cardinals outscored the Pioneers 54-25 in the second half on a 60.61 shooting percentage from the field including 55.56 percent from three. The final score was 85-69.
The Pioneers rebounded with an 81-63 win over Houghton College before being caught in the talons of the Golden Flyers by a score of 72-63. Nazareth beat Utica at its own game, outshooting the Pioneers from behind the arc with 41.9 percent compared to Utica’s 14.3 percent.
Both losses demonstrated holes in Utica’s game early in the season. To Lufkin, it was more the mental game the team lost in those moments.
“It was more of a mental struggle for us,” Lufkin said. “Overall just taking teams’ best hits and how we reacted in those games. We obviously didn’t react very well and that’s why they won.”
Fisher and Nazareth have been the superteams of the Empire 8 for basketball over the past two decades. This year was different. Despite the losses to the juggernauts of the Empire 8, the Pioneers felt like they were still the team to beat.
“We know that these teams are not going to go away,” Remley said. “This was by far the best team I’ve been a part of and I thought that after we lost those games. We knew what they did well and I just thought we were better.”
Run to the Playoffs
After falling to Nazareth and St. John Fisher, the Pioneers flipped a switch. The team followed the loss to the Golden Flyers with four double-digit wins. The team’s first pair of wins came against Russell Sage College, 59-44 and 78-65. Utica followed those up with another pair of wins against Elmira College, 70-58 and 84-53.
The Pioneers were hitting a stride both offensively and defensively. Kimedrick Murphy, senior center, referred to these games as crucial in Utica’s journey to the championship.
“After the Naz[areth] loss, we needed to win to get our confidence back up to where it needs to be for us to take on the bigger schools,” Murphy said. “We had some hard weeks in practice to just get ready for those games. We had to make sure we went out there and did what we needed to do.”
Postseason Revenge Against Nazareth
Utica closed its regular season out on a four-game win streak. This propelled the team to the top of the Empire 8 conference as the number two seed. This guaranteed the Pioneers history. On April 9, the Pioneers hosted its first-ever Empire 8 playoff game in program history.
Utica College announced, in accordance with the Empire 8, that sporting events would be allowed up to 65 attendees. Once the tickets hit the market, fans responded quickly to this home playoff match.
It didn’t matter whether 65 people were allowed in Miga Court, or 100; the home court advantage set the tone for the Pioneers’ postseason play, giving the team the extra fuel it needed to push through.
Before tip-off, the energy in the gymnasium was one of the future champions. The fans radiated it, and the players felt it, too.
“The fans finally sitting in the stands was nice,” Lufkin said. “It was a nice change in the pace and energy of the gym. I feel like hosting gave us a lot of momentum and we were ready to play them.”
The Pioneers went into halftime down by two points in this grudge match. Coming out of the locker room, the Pioneers caught fire to punch a ticket to the championship game. In the first nine minutes of the second half, the Pioneers outscored the Golden Flyers 18-5 and never looked back. The first dose of revenge was complete.
“I felt like that was the game where we finally figured ourselves out as a team,” Lufkin said. “We all were clicking. Everyone on the team wanted to play for each other. We just had great energy.”
Tying it Together, At the Top
Two days following the team’s semi-finals win against Nazareth, the Pioneers made the trip out to Manning-Napier Varsity Gym to take on the Cardinals of St. John Fisher.
Coming into the game, the Pioneers were 0-3 in championship games against Fisher. Step two of the revenge plot was now in place.
“We were all ready,” Murphy said. “The team needed this. We wanted to win. We wanted to win for Bamba. We had been saying that all year so we got to come in with a winner’s mentality like we’re ready to go.”
Going into the locker room the Pioneers were leading 44-35. Everyone was contributing to the early lead shooting 55.5 percent from the field. This included Empire 8 First-Team selection, Thomas Morreale who scored the Pioneers first nine points from behind the arc.
The team needed to finish. After the buzzer sounded for the first half, Coffey was prepared to address his team with that very simple message. Instead of saying it, Coffey walked into the locker room hearing it.
“At halftime, I didn’t really even have to say a word,” Coffey said. “I could hear them in there saying everything that needed to be said. It was just like they got it. They are figuring it out and growing up. It was pretty cool.”
It was like something out of a movie. Almost fairy-tale like how everything came together. The Pioneers came out of the gates with divine guidance as they opened the second half on an 11-2 run.
After the team’s explosion to start the quarter, Utica kept pouring it on. The final dagger didn’t come from deep. Instead, it came from the big man down low on multiple consecutive possessions.
“[Murphy] was the one who single-handedly ended Fisher’s run,” Coffey said. “As the lead got down to nine, he had four straight buckets of pure dominance. He played like the biggest person in the gym and took all hope away from the opponent.”
The Pioneers never let the Cardinals get within striking distance. Both Coffey and the players lost track of the lead. The focus was solely on getting buckets; attention so deep like reading a great book that you cannot put down. The championship feeling didn’t sink in until the Cardinals admitted defeat.
“I was losing track of the lead,” Coffey said. “I was still coaching like it was a five-point game. We’ve been in that position before. We can’t lose this huge lead so I just coached till the end. Once they started putting in their bench guys, I turned to Coach Mullane and said ‘They’re throwing it in, this is going to happen.’”
The final seconds ticked down. It was over.
“There are so many emotions,” Lufkin said. “It was hard to take in all at once. We had joy. We were a little sad at times. It was hard to even comprehend it at the moment. It’s all kind of starting to set in now.”
The celebrations kept coming for the Pioneers. The team’s MVP was Murphy, otherwise known as “The Hama.”
“I was turning around and dapping everybody good game and they called my name,” Murphy said. “I was like, ‘My name?’ My heart started racing and I was just happy we won. I just couldn’t believe it. It was all so crazy.”
There are certain traditions that come with winning a championship. There are the championship rings and banners. Then there is the dousing of liquids over their coach.
“I walked in and they were all quiet,” Coffey said. “Then they just exploded. There were bottles of water everywhere and they were squirting me. Just things I’ll never forget. You see it at every NCAA tournament so that was pretty awesome.”
The Next Chapter
There was no Division III men’s basketball tournament. Thus, the Pioneers finished its season on top. Remley finished his career at the peak. The celebrations will continue. Soon, the Pioneers will have to look toward the fall. That comes with getting back to work sooner rather than later.
“We will meet with each player individually and talk about what they need to do to improve,” Coffey said. “They’re going to have three and a half or four months at home on their own. That‘s really winning time. We’re not going to get too complacent.”
The Pioneers are the team to beat now. That comes with a target on the team’s back for the Empire 8. Knowing that Remley won’t be coming back in a Pioneers jersey, he is excited to see his former team go back-to-back in 2022.
“No one else cares,” Remley said. “When you go to next season, they are coming for you because you are on top. I’m excited to watch.”