Four years of Queens basketball: A farewell letter

Four years ago, the new Queens freshmen thought their basketball team was elite.

They weren’t wrong, but they didn’t realize just how much better it could get.

The 2015-16 team had plenty to captivate an audience. They had just pulled in two transfers from Division I (DI) schools, Marquis Rankin out of Virginia Tech and Jacoby Davis from Mississippi State.

To freshmen like me, it felt like we had the best Division II (DII) men’s basketball team in the nation. The DI transfers weren’t the stars, that honor belonged to Rob Lewis and Sean Morgan. Lewis led the team in points per game with 18.3 while Morgan averaged 17.3 points per game on over 70% shooting from the floor. The two were the only members of the team to score more than 30 in a single game. 

That Queens team started the season winning their first 12 games but eventually stumbled. They went 25-7 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The school who took them down were the hosts of the Southeast Regional that year, a small institution in Harrogate, Tennessee by the name of Lincoln Memorial University.

Freshmen that year would soon become accustomed to Lincoln Memorial, who would become bitter rivals with Queens in the years to come.

Speaking of freshmen, the 2015-2016 Queens men’s basketball team had five. Not one of the five were on the roster as seniors four years later.

That first year was good. The second year, however, became the start of a dynasty. 

In fact, Queens Sports Network commentator Phil Constantino stated in this year’s Elite Eight that the Royals had the third best record in all of college basketball between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 seasons. The only teams better in that three year span were Gonzaga in DI and Northwest Missouri State in DII.

Looking back, it’s no wonder the team began to take off in the winter of 2016. Daniel Camps became a senior and the team’s leader. Todd Withers continued to grow and get better as he entered his junior year. Ike Agusi, Mike Davis, and Jalin Alexander all transferred in for their junior year.

That group gave the Royals a staggering level of balance on their attack. All five averaged in double figures. Four — Camps, Withers, Davis and Alexander — averaged at least 13 points per game.

Daniel Camps (13) was a presence on the court and a leader on the Queens team during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.

The year began on a promising note. Queens went to Richmond, Virginia to play an exhibition match against Virginia Commonwealth University, who had just made the NCAA tournament in DI the year before. The Royals won, 75-73.

Queens started off this season even better than they had the year before, leaping to a 16-0 record. Bolstered by strong play from Camps, they went on to win the South Atlantic Conference (SAC) tournament.

Much of the team’s success to that was point was carried by the impressive shooting of the new troops. A year before, Queens made 7.7 three-pointers a game. This group upped it to 9.9.

 They beat Lincoln Memorial in the SAC final, 75-72, to take the conference title. It was the third time the two schools butted heads that season. The first one went the way of Queens in a 103-101 overtime game, the next one was an 81-79 Lincoln victory.

Winning the SAC tournament was enough to secure Queens the number one seed in the Southeast Regional, an honor that also gave them the right to host their region.

Queens won their first two games in the Southeast Regional. So did Lincoln Memorial. The two schools would play a fourth and final time this season in front of a large Levine Center crowd.

The Royals fell apart at the worst possible time. Poor shooting from both the floor and the free throw line plagued Queens down the stretch. Despite converting over 50 percent of their attempted baskets for the season, they only shot 36.2 percent that night. Their free throw shooting was equally as abysmal, they went 17-31 at the line. They lost 82-68 — a 14 point defeat on a night they where they missed a total of 14 free throws. A promising 2016-17 season came to an end.

That season, Queens had five freshmen. Among the freshmen were Daniel Carr, Jonathan Horodyski and fan-favorite Josh Brodowicz. They were the only three players from the 2018-19 roster that were Royals three years ago.

The next year, the 2017-18 season, the core of juniors from the season before had prominent roles on the team. On any given night, Withers, Alexander, Agusi or Davis could lead the Royals to victory.

The veteran leadership of the team saw no significant stat jumps in this next year. In fact, they managed to become even more balanced.

Withers, a big man who was also dangerous beyond the arc, was nearly impossible to guard. He became the team’s leading scorer, although his points per game remained the same as the year before: 13.6. The other three all continued to average double digit points per game. 

withers going for a layup

Todd Withers (above) stepped up after Camps graduated to become Queens’ leading scorer and an NBA hopeful.

They adapted to share the ball with more players than ever before. Carr, who was now a sophomore, averaged more than seven points per game. 

Joining the team that season were junior transfers Shaun Willett and Lewis Diankulu. Willett, a playmaking shot-creator, averaged nearly 10 per game and Diankulu, a presence in the paint, used his height to score nearly nine points per game.

Queens head coach Bart Lundy’s best talent may be recruiting and using transfers. Over the past four years, transfers have streamed onto the Queens men’s basketball team and efficiently melded into the Royals system.

In fact, the amount of fresh faces joining Queens basketball season after season makes the program look more like a DI powerhouse than a small DII basketball team. Two-year transfers aren’t quite the same as one-and-dones entering the NBA draft every year, but it’s close enough.

Not that Queens has never had a player with draft potential over the past four years. That didn’t come until the 2017-18 season.

Queens started 16-0 again that season, except this time they were rewarded with the school’s first ever national number one overall ranking for their efforts.

However, the winning streak — and top ranking — would come to an end at the hands of (who else?) Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial narrowly edged Queens 73-72 on January 13, 2018, to seize the number one overall spot for the rest of the season, then beat them twice more for good measure, in last game of the regular season and in the SAC championship game.

Unsurprisingly, Lincoln Memorial was given the rights to the Southeast region’s top seed and to host regional play. Both Queens and LMU won their opening two games in the tournament to meet in the Southeast Regional for the third straight year and in the regional final in the second straight year.

At this point, Lincoln Memorial had ended Queens’ season two years in a row. On top of that, they had won their past four games against Queens and taken five of the last six.

The game would be played on Lincoln Memorial’s home court. The odds were heavily against the Royals in a game against the best team in the country 

But Queens didn’t back down. In fact, they returned Lincoln Memorial’s favor from last season. LMU was handed a crushing defeat in front of their home audience in the Southeast Regional final.

Queens was traveling to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to play in the Elite Eight.

They would go even further. Queens won their Elite Eight game to secure a date with Northern State University in the final four.

If playing Lincoln Memorial in Harrogate, Tennessee for the Southeast Regional final was bad, this was much worse. Northern State was a school from South Dakota that practically bussed their entire fanbase to the game. Queens, far from home and with no students in attendance, would be against the crowd for the entirety of the national semifinal.

Televised in front of a national audience on CBS Sports, Queens had the lead late in regulation before allowing Northern State back in to force the first overtime. With seconds left in overtime, Queens was up five with almost sure victory in their sights.

They blew it.

Queens led 89-84 with 27 seconds left in the first overtime. Northern State shot a three, was fouled, hit two free throws, missed the third, got the rebound and sank another three. The possession — five points for Northern State in total — tied the game. The game went into a second overtime and Northern State blew Queens away, earning a spot in the national championship. The Royals went home.

The taste of defeat was bitter. After upsetting the best team in the nation to win the Southeast Regional, Queens looked unstoppable. Victory was so close. A national title was so close.

Nonetheless, the world and Queens basketball kept moving.

The pedigree of that year’s Queens team was shown in the following offseason. Ike Agusi and Mike Davis signed with pro teams in Europe. Todd Withers was scouted for the NBA draft before ultimately signing with the Detroit Pistons’ G-League squad.

Students entering their senior year in 2018-2019 wouldn’t be faulted if they thought they already watched the best Queens would ever have to offer. Too much talent had graduated. But Queens was not done yet.

A talented crop of freshmen and transfers came in to assist seniors Willett and Diankulu to allow them to make a new run at the title.

Willett’s growth as a player between seasons was exceptional. He led the nation across all divisions with 27 double-doubles. He was the team’s leading scorer by far and became a national player of the year candidate.

The start of the season was rough and seemingly signaled a rebuilding year. Queens lost convincingly in a rematch with Northern State, and was destroyed by a Belmont Abbey squad that should have been very beatable.

Something changed within the Royals after that.

Queens won their next 14 games to shoot to the top of the Southeast Regional rankings and once again flirt with the top 10 in national rankings. A loss to Lenoir-Rhyne would be followed with an additional nine more wins.

The SAC tournament brought disappointment rather than glory, however. Queens didn’t even make it to the tournament final for the first time in four years. They were knocked out by Lenoir-Rhyne in the semifinal.

Nonetheless, Queens was granted the top seed in the Southeast Region and the opportunity to host their second regional in three years.

Their first match echoed the nightmare of their SAC semifinal loss. Queens barely beat Emmanuel College after a poor shooting performance and Willett’s first single-digit scoring effort of the season. They shot a little over 11 percent from the three-point line and just over 40 percent overall from the field.

A performance like that — from both Willett and Queens as a whole — just wouldn’t cut it if Queens hoped to continue advancing.

They improved. The Royals went back and forth with SAC rivals Catawba in a close game. The crowd was electric as Queens packed the house and Catawba also brought in a swath of fans. The players (and, surprisingly, coaches) got into physical confrontations. A Queens student was ejected. The Royals barely held on to win and the crowd erupted.

Constantino might have summarized it best after the game. “A rivalry may have been born.”

The crowd may have had energy in the regional semifinal, but it was nothing compared to the regional final. In my four years of attendance — I’ve worked at the majority of the Royals’ home games during that time — I had never seen the Levine Center so full.

This game was smoother. Queens rolled over Augusta University, much to the elation of the hometown faithful. Lundy and company were able to redeem themselves from the failure against Lincoln Memorial two years ago on the very same court.

Despite preseason predictions calling for regression, the 2018-19 Queens men’s basketball team (above) earned a number one overall seed and won the regional tournament in NCAA play.

Against all odds, Queens was back in the Elite Eight. They failed to carry their momentum from the last two games, however, and the poor shooting from the Emmanuel game returned as they shot less than 44% from the field and below 22% from three. The Royals were eliminated, and the 2018-19 season drew to an end.

While it’s heartbreaking to get so close to a national title two years in a row and fail to seal the deal, there are no hard feelings. In their past three seasons, Queens went 30-4, 32-4 and 31-5. That’s 93-13 in three years; it’s hard to be disappointed in that.

So, from a senior who has watched nearly every home game Queens has hosted over the last four years: thank you Queens men’s basketball. Thank you for the fun of the past four years, the excitement, the heartbreak, the dunks and the threes.

Give this year’s upcoming class of freshmen four years that are just as exciting.

All images courtesy of Queens Athletics.

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Published by students of Queens University of Charlotte, 1900 Selwyn Avenue, Charlotte, N.C. 28274.