It isn’t easy to be a member of the ensemble, spending your entire career – so incredibly finite in the college basketball world – in the shadows of the stars of the show.
But it’s a role that Lafayette reserve guard Zach Rufer has not only accepted, but embraced.
“My role is to play a ton of defense when I’m out there,” says Rufer, a junior from Bloomingburg, NY, also known as “Mr. Energy.” “I’m known to bring energy out there and knock down open shots.”
“He brings a lot of energy every time I call him out there and he plays hard,” says Lafayette basketball head coach Fran O’Hanlon. “He competes in practice, diving for balls, battling for rebounds. It doesn’t change in games.”
But in the Patriot League Championship Game — biggest moments of the biggest game of Lafayette’s season, and the biggest game of Rufer’s career — the selfless 6-foot-3-inch role player grabbed the spotlight and stole the show to help send Lafayette to its first NCAA Tournament since 2000.
With 2:50 left in the championship game, the Leopards were hanging on by a fingernail to a 56-55 lead against a surging American squad when Lafayette star Nick Lindner clanged a 3-pointer, with the ball caroming towards the sidelines, appearing to give possession back to the Eagles.
Except that’s when Rufer intervened. Playing in place of Lafayette sniper Joey Ptasinski, who suffered an injury earlier in the game, Rufer swooped in to grab the offensive rebound and in one motion found teammate Bryce Scott with an outlet pass before falling out of bounds.
“I saw the shot coming off the side of the rim and was able to save it before it went out of bounds,” Rufer says.
After keeping the possession alive, Rufer curled around to the right corner where, Scott found him. Without hesitation, and with American star Pee Wee Gardner closing out fast, Rufer fired up a 3-ball, and found the bottom of the cylinder, pushing the lead back to two possessions with 2:16 left.
“There were only a couple seconds left but I was the last option so I felt I’d get an open look,” Rufer says. “It was just really exciting to be playing the last couple minutes of such an important game.”
“Ruf’ did an absolutely awesome job coming in,” says O’Hanlon of Rufer, who averaged just 3.1 points and 1.8 rebounds per game for the season. “He had a huge rebound late, and hit that big three when we needed it with Joey hurt.
Rufer’s unexpected heroics – five points on 2-of-2 shooting and five rebounds –helped propel the Leopards (20-12) to a 65-63 win and the program’s first tip back to The Big Dance in fifteen years, making fourth-seed Lafayette the lowest seed to ever win the Patriot League Tournament.
But Rufer realizes he will likely have to relinquish his star billing status when the Leopards step out under the white hot lights of the NCAA Tournament, and he’s ok with that.
“We have a lot of talent on this team,” says Rufer. “We can go anywhere. We’ve been in big games. It’s a combination of everyone.”
Rufer was actually far more comfortable praising the Leopards four seniors — Joey Ptasinski, Seth Hinrichs, Dan Trist and Alan Flannigan – than he was about talking about his star turn in the championship game.
“They’ve played a huge factor this season,” Rufer says. “They hold the team down, and do a great job leading. These guys just bring a lot of experience to the table.”
Sixteen-seed Lafayette will tip-off off against top-seed Villanova – O’Hanlon’s alma mater — in the Second Round of the East Region at 6:50 p.m. ET on Thursday night. Fittingly, Mr. Energy and his teammates will take the floor in front of thousands of paying fans, and in front of millions watching at home, at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
No 16-seed has ever beaten a No. 1, but Rufer is confident that the Leopards have a shot, and he’ll be doing everything he can – scrapping for loose balls, taking charges, and knocking down 3’s – even if no one is watching him.
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.