CUA & Scranton to renew rivalry that stretches over 75 years

CUA & Scranton to renew rivalry that stretches over 75 years

By Chris McManes

Catholic University and the University of Scranton first played each other in men's basketball in the 1930s. They squared off just twice over the next 50 years until renewing the rivalry on an annual basis.

As members of the Landmark Conference, the teams now play one another twice, and sometimes three times a year. The 45th renewal of the rivalry will be on display today when Scranton rolls into DuFour Center on a 10-game winning streak to take on the Cardinals at 5:30 p.m.

The Royals (12-2) sit atop the Landmark with a 5-0 record. CUA (11-5), which will be playing its first conference home game, is 2-3 and tied for fourth in the league. The Cards are looking to right the ship against their longtime rival.

"We need to come out with better focus and more determination than we had in our last game," CUA Head Coach Steve Howes said. "We want to get back to where we were just after the new year."

The Cardinals began the season 10-2 and were playing well after winning the CUA/Greenbelt Residence Inn Classic on Jan. 2. But both of those victories came with 40 percent of the team's original starting lineup gone.

Sophomore Dan DiVietri left school and returned home for personal reasons. The 6-foot-4 small forward started the first seven games and was averaging 10.3 points and 7 rebounds. He played in just two more contests, the last on Dec. 13.

In the meantime, sophomore center Chris Kearney broke his left heel and has missed the past six games. Kearney doesn't score a lot of points (5.9 ppg) but is a defensive stalwart in the post. In nine games, he's averaging 2.1 blocks. It's still up in the air whether he plays this weekend, including a home game against Moravian on Saturday at 2 p.m.

"He's a great defensive presence for us," Howes said. "He allows us to do a lot of different things offensively and defensively. He knows our system, and he's got a chance to be a really special player here."

CUA will need as many weapons at its disposal as possible to contend with the Royals. Senior Zach Ashworth scored his 1,500th career point in Scranton's last victory, 81-64, over Susquehanna. He is averaging 19.4 points and 5.4 rebounds, and is one of only 15 players in school history to surpass the 1,500-point mark. He has scored in double figures his past 41 games.

Ashworth has plenty of help. Luke Hawk is averaging 15.2 points and 5.9 rebounds, Travis Ferrell checks in at 12.7 points and 6.4 boards, and Matt Swaback averages 10.6 points and 4 rebounds.

The Cardinals' top guns are seniors Jason Banzhaf and R.J. Dixon. Banzhaf, a two-time honorable mention All-American is having a great final season. The 6-4, 205-pounder from Livingston, N.J., is averaging 19.5 points and a league-leading 9.1 rebounds. Just seven points shy of 1,600 career points, he is the ninth-leading scorer in the school's 100-year history.

Dixon, a 6-foot combo guard from Charlotte, N.C., is scoring 14.4 points per game and handing out 3.8 assists, both personal highs. In CUA's exhibition game loss at Notre Dame, he tallied a team-high 13 points.

Howes is pleased to have seven of the final nine league games at home.

"I think I see the conference schedule maker in my nightmares," he said. "It will be nice to see some friendly faces at the DuFour Center and not be on the interstate somewhere. It's been a touch stretch and we would have liked to have played better, but we can only worry about the next challenge waiting for us."

Genesis of a Rivalry
The Royals, who lead the all-time series with the Cardinals, 28-16, won the first two Landmark Conference championships (2008, 2009). They have knocked the Cards out of the conference tournament each of the past two seasons. The only two Catholic schools in the league have developed a fierce but friendly rivalry, particularly since they began playing each other at least twice a year in 2007.

The clubs first played on Dec. 15, 1934 when Scranton was known as St. Thomas College. They faced off twice that year, with St. Thomas winning the first game at home, 34-33, and CUA winning, 48-25, to conclude a 12-5 season under Forrest Cotton. The teams met each other twice a year through 1938 and St. Thomas held a 5-3 advantage.

They didn't meet again until the 1971-72 campaign, an 80-63 Royal victory in a Scranton-hosted tournament. Three seasons later, the Cards had the upper hand, 82-81. They have battled one another at least once a year the past 26 seasons.

Former Cardinal point guard Mike Lonergan, Howes' coach at CUA, was a veteran of many games against the Royals. Lonergan has acknowledged that not only did his coach, Jack Bruen, model his program after Scranton's, but so did he.

"It's certainly special to be part of such a rich and storied rivalry between two teams with very rich histories," Howes said. "I remember one of my first lessons in that was my first year here [as a player], and Coach Lonergan was talking about one of the times they had Scranton beat up there and he got called for being out of bounds even though he was probably – according to him – at least four to five feet from the sideline.

"He talked about how Coach Bruen was all over him for that possession, and I just remember the intensity and the passion with which he told that story. It really conveyed how important this rivalry is."

The games, which can get heated when both teams are playing well, extend back to Bruen competing against a coaching legend, Bob Bessoir. It continues today under Howes and Royal Coach Carl Danzig, both of whom respect the abilities of the other.

"It's a game in our season that is highlighted before the season even starts," Danzig said. "Steve Howes has done a terrific job with a program that has great tradition.  He continues to keep them among the top programs in the Landmark Conference."

Lonergan, who had an 8-4 record against Scranton, won the final seven games in the series. He had such respect and fondness for Bessoir that when the two teams met for the final time with Bessoir on the sidelines (Nov. 26, 200), Lonergan gave him a plaque. The Cards won that game in the John Long Center, 69-64.

The following was adapted from, "The Flight of the Cardinals: A 100-Year History of Catholic University Men's Basketball." It details CUA's rise under Bruen and the influence Scranton had on his program.

Bruen Leaves A Lasting Mark
Coach Jack Kvancz's final year with the Cardinals was the school's first in Division III (1981-82). Once he departed, CUA turned to one of its own to lead the basketball team. After graduating with a degree in history, Jack Bruen served as an assistant from 1972-79 in nearby Hyattsville, Md., under DeMatha Catholic High School Coach and Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten. After that he was Archbishop Carroll's head coach for three seasons. He was hired by his alma mater in 1982.

As much of an impact Bruen had on the school as a player, it would pale by comparison to his coaching exploits.

Bruen, then 33, took over a program that had been wandering in the NCAA wilderness and had not posted a winning season in 12 years. The team also began playing in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC).

In his first campaign Bruen led the Cardinals to a 13-12 record that included a victory at the nation's No. 1-ranked team, Roanoke, 79-76. His coaching ability so impressed his league peers that he was named 1982-83 ODAC Coach of the Year.

CUA stayed in the conference for just one more year before rejoining for football only in 1999.

Bruen's program was bolstered his first four years by John Winkler, who became the Cardinals' third all-time leading scorer (1,793 points). Following a 14-14 performance in 1983-84, CUA recorded five consecutive winning seasons. Mike Lonergan joined the team as a point guard from Archbishop Carroll in 1984 and Jimmy Patsos came on board two years later. Patsos became an assistant coach at Maryland and helped Gary Williams' squad win the 2002 National Championship. He is now head coach at Loyola (Md.), and he and Lonergan's Vermont teams have played each other.

The 1985-86 season was a memorable one on a number of fronts. First, Bruen led the Cards to a 19-8 record – then a program best for victories – and their first national ranking (No. 16). Second, they left Brookland Gymnasium and moved into the Raymond A. DuFour Center. Third, the club won its first postseason title in 22 years – the ECAC South Region Tournament. CUA defeated Mary Washington, 63-60, and two days later won the championship, 90-86, at Frostburg State. The Cardinals won 14 straight games, including a rare 73-66 victory over Scranton.

Former Scranton Coach Bob Bessoir had built a powerful program that won the Division III National Championship in 1976 and 1983. His teams reflected his superb coaching ability and didn't look like other teams that came to play at CUA. From their warm-up uniforms, to the way they ran on to the court for pre-game activities, to the way they executed Bessoir's offense and defense, the Royals played the game the way it was meant to be played.

Bruen admired Bessoir's program and thought that if Scranton – a smaller Catholic school in the East – could excel, the Cardinals could, too. So Bruen, beginning in his third season, made sure the Royals were on the schedule each year.

Bessoir, in a February 2010 interview, recalled what Bruen told him when he moved to CUA.

"He always used to say, 'Bess, we want a program like yours. We're trying to build a program like Scranton's,'" Bessoir said. "Well, I said, 'You have the wherewithal, you have the position geographically, you have the coaching and you have the backing. So go.' And it wasn't until Mike Lonergan took over that, really, that happened."

During another loss to the Royals, an unusual sequence of events unfolded. The Cardinals' Kevin Boddie, a strong and athletic 6-6 forward who had attended DeMatha High but did not play basketball there, scored on a breakaway slam dunk on three straight possessions and was fouled each time. He made the first two free throws for eight consecutive points.

"I don't remember the kid going in driving," said Bessoir, who won 67.8 percent of his games during his 29-year (1972-2001) career at Scranton. "You've got to forgive me, I've coached over a thousand games."

Men's college basketball began to undergo some major changes in the mid 1980s. A 45-second shot clock was introduced in 1985-86. (It was lowered to 35 seconds in 1993-94.) The change that has probably had the most profound effect on the game was the 1986-87 introduction of the 3-point shot. This made outside marksmen even more valuable than they had been and made it easier for trailing teams to cut into big leads.

One of the first Cardinals to take advantage of the 3-pointer was Rob McCarry (1983-87), who tallied 1,542 career points. He helped CUA enjoyed a memorable win on Feb. 2, 1987 when it defeated NYU, 84-74, at Madison Square Garden.

Bruen's mark continues to permeate the Cardinal program. During an 18-8 campaign in 1987-88, he started the season-ending Eastern Invitational Tournament. The eight-team gathering at DuFour Center featured East Coast independents that, like the Cards, didn't have their own postseason tournament. Lonergan scored a career-high 19 points in the inaugural title game but the Cardinals lost to Emory, 98-91. The event has evolved into the four-team CUA/Residence Inn Greenbelt Classic and is now played around New Year's.

Bruen, tiring of the difficulty putting together a schedule each year and longing for the recognition and stability that a conference could bring, began having informal discussions with some of his peers about forming a new league. He, Webb Hatch of Marymount, Tom Davies of Mary Washington and Jay Gardiner of St. Mary's (Md.) were the principals behind the formation of the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC).

Bruen, who had to tend bar to supplement his income, closed his Cardinal coaching career with another 18-8 season in 1988-89. He departed alongside two prolific scorers: Kenny Wills, who tallied 1,146 career points, and Kevin Morrison, who scored 1,139.

Bruen finished as CUA's fourth-winningest coach with 110 victories and deserves much of the credit for the stature of the program today. In the 28 seasons since his arrival, the Cardinals have recorded 22 winning campaigns and earned an NCAA Tournament berth 11 times. The Cards had only been in the NCAA postseason twice previously.

Bruen left CUA to coach at Division I Colgate, which he led to two NCAA Tournament appearances, two Patriot League championships (1995, '96) and two NCAA Tournaments. He was named Patriot League Coach of the Year in 1992 and 1996 and coached Adonal Foyle, who was selected eighth overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 1997 NBA Draft.

"He's probably the best coach most people have never heard of," Lonergan said. "A lot of people don't realize he got Colgate to the [Patriot] championship game before Adonal Foyle came. He did a remarkable job."

Lonergan was an assistant under Bruen at Colgate for three seasons (1989-92). Like his mentor, he made ends meet by working as a bartender in Hamilton, N.Y., and would often eat dinner at Bruen and his wife Joan's house.

"Jack Bruen was like a second father to me," Lonergan said. "My first son is named Jack after my dad and Jack Bruen. He was a great coach and a great man. I still think about him every day."

Bruen died of pancreatic cancer on Dec. 19, 1997 at age 48. Just six days prior, he coached the Raiders to an 80-69 victory over Marist College.

"He was a very good coach and the kids loved him," Cardinal Equipment Manager Franny Murray said. "He was the kind of guy who would do anything in the world for you. He died too young."

Chris McManes was CUA's sports information director when it won the 2001 National Championship and is the school's unofficial basketball historian.