- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

Coach Mike Lonergan and the Catholic University basketball team ignored the condescending whispers going into the Division III Final Four in Salem, Va., last weekend.

The Cardinals were too small, too slow and too planted to the floor to be where they were. They lacked the pedigree of Ohio Northern, the 1993 Division III national champion. They lacked the one superstar player who could dominate a game, a Horace Jenkins of William Paterson (N.J.) University.

Pat Maloney, the Cardinals' senior point guard from Brant Beach, N.J., is built like a running back. He even might be considered a tad pudgy. He takes his time to get to wherever he is going. He does not try to beat you off the dribble. He beats you with his savvy, his skills, his vision. He beats you with the 3-pointer and the crisp pass.

Andy Rice is another unlikely force. He is a slightly built 6-footer from West Springfield High School who appears to be one collision away from the emergency room. He'll stick his nose into the chest of a big guy and dare to have it rearranged. Rice asks: You want some of this? He weighs at least a couple of pounds, counting the head band.

The Cardinals were all like that, somehow deficient, perceived as somehow out of their element against the nation's premier small college basketball teams. They did not have a player with a 44-inch vertical leap who has been written up in Sports Illustrated, which are two claims Jenkins can make. They did not have Ohio Northern's quick-trigger shooting artists, complemented by All-American forward Kris Oberdick.

But they had a team, with each part dependent on the other, and they had a resolve hardened by the team's five seniors: Maloney, Rice, Tim Judge, Kurt Zeisler and Mike Hartman.

The Cardinals left the pronouncements to others. Their statement was subtle, almost unconvincing, going back to their 61-59 victory over Marymount in the Capital Athletic Conference championship game.

After defeating CCNY 82-65 in the opening round of the national tournament, the Cardinals flirted with elimination each step of the way. They slipped past Widener (Pa.) 69-67, then SUNY Brockport (N.Y.) 69-64, then Clark (Mass.) 82-78 and then Ohio Northern 82-77 in the national semifinals Friday night.

The Sweet 16 game against Brockport was especially crazy. It could have ended there, in Worcester, Mass. How did they do it? It beats them. Lonergan suggested his team was "lucky" to have overcome its 26 turnovers.

Sometimes the box score lied around Catholic, no sacrilege intended.

In the championship game Saturday night, William Paterson outrebounded the Cardinals 42-28, including 22-6 on the offensive end. The Pioneers also finished with 22 more field goal attempts than the Cardinals.

Those numbers indicated an outcome different from the Cardinals 76, the Pioneers 62.

"How did we do it?" Lonergan said, smiling, knowing the answer.

The Cardinals were eight of 16 from the 3-point line, breaking one of the game's dinosaur-age axioms. No, the Cardinals didn't die by the jump shot. They flourished because of it. The 3-pointer was the great equalizer, and in the end, old-fashioned basketball skill triumphed over the dribble-happy, one-on-one creativity favored by Jenkins.

Jenkins is a talent worthy of the attention he has received from NBA scouts, but talent is often blunted by the college game's various zone defenses. Lonergan challenged Jenkins to distribute the ball with a 1-3-1 zone defense, and Jenkins wound up going seven of 25 from the field. He made his only 3-pointer, out of 12 attempts, with 24 seconds left and the game already decided.

None of the Cardinals, meanwhile, felt the urge to be distinct from the rest. They don't have that in them.

So here was Rice with 17 points and five assists. Here was Maloney delivering a knee-buckling 3-pointer from 30 feet with 1:54 left. Here was all this production from Matt Hilleary, Will Morley and Craig Avallone.

Here was a team, trite as it sounds, a national championship team, Catholic's first in any sport.

Get those ring fingers measured.

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