By Kevin Dunleavy
of the Washington Examiner
Two years ago on Ash Wednesday, the Catholic University basketball team found itself on the road. Visiting a church in downtown Scranton, Pa., the players, in CU gear, entered to a chorus of boos. "That was a first," said Catholic coach Steve Howes. "Never got booed walking into mass."
That evening, the reception was no less kind at Long Center, where Catholic lost in overtime to Scranton in the Landmark Conference tournament.
Saturday night when CUA (19-7) returns to Scranton (19-5) for the conference championship game, the Cardinals know what to expect as they strive for an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
"The town will be against us," said Howes. "But it won't be unanimous. We travel pretty well."
Scranton has been an inhospitable stop for the Cardinals, who have lost five games at Long Center over the last three seasons. The last two years, the Cardinals' NCAA hopes died in northeast Pennsylvania.
This season, Scranton owns a pair of double-digit victories over Catholic, as guard Zach Ashworth has burned the Cardinals for a combined 53 points, hitting 10 of 20 shots from beyond the arc.
Ashworth (20.5 ppg), a 6-2 senior, has had the upper hand, matching up with CUA standout R.J. Dixon (15.4 ppg), a 6-foot senior from Charlotte, who impressed Notre Dame coach Mike Brey when Catholic visited South Bend for an exhibition game.
"R.J.'s as good a Division III guard as you'll find," said Howes. "He can drive, shoot. He's the heart and soul of our team."
Scranton has riddled CU with its superior perimeter game. But the Cardinals have more firepower inside with under-sized but effective 6-4 senior Jason Banzhaf (18.5 ppg), who leads the Landmark Conference in rebounds (9.0 pg).
The wildcard is 6-7 sophomore Chris Kearney, who missed the first game with Scranton after suffering a broken foot. When the teams met three weeks ago in Scranton, Kearney was at less than full strength.
On Wednesday night, however, in the Landmark semifinals, Kearney's back-to-back slam-dunks ignited CU in the second half of a 71-58 victory at Drew. Kearney finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks.
Coming on the road, it was a significant victory for Catholic, which lost last month at Drew, 90-74, when Kearney was sidelined.
"We're definitely a better team now than the first two times we played Scranton," said Howes. "We didn't play well in either game. But part of that was us and part of that was them."
Notes: Catholic has yet to win a title in four years in the Landmark Conference. The Cardinals won conference championships and advanced to the NCAAs in 2006 and 2007, their last two seasons in the Capital Athletic Conference ... Although not on the Catholic staff in 2000-01, Howes had a hand in the Cardinals' run to the Division III National Championship that year. He recruited many of the players as an assistant to Mike Lonergan from 1998-2000 ... Howes returned after the championship season, and when Vermont hired Lonergan in 2004, Howes was promoted to take over. "He's a friend and mentor," Howes said of Lonergan. "He taught me how to run an elite, championship-level program." ... Catholic's roster includes reserve guard Billy Donovan, son of the Florida coach ... Division III tournament brackets will be revealed on Monday.
For more on Saturday's championship game, click here.