The giant killer of the Patriot League tournament had another top seed backed against the ropes, but this one escaped.
Spurred by an intentional foul against Lafayette that turned into a five-point play, then by a three-point basket by Tucker Neale, third-seeded Colgate advanced to Friday's championship game last night with a 76-73 victory at the Naval Academy's Alumni Hall.
Colgate (17-11) will play the winner of the Navy-Holy Cross semifinal at a site to be determined by the outcome. If Navy wins, the final would be in Annapolis. If Holy Cross wins, it travels to Colgate.
Seventh-seeded Lafayette had knocked out No. 2 Fordham in the quarterfinals after slogging through the final month of the regular season with eight losses in nine starts.
And the Leopards were not completely out of this one until a three-point attempt to tie by guard Craig Kowadla bounded off the front of the rim and was tipped out to Neale, who dribbled away the final seconds.
"He [Kowadla] makes that shot eight times out of 10," said Kowadla's backcourt mate, Keith Brazzo. "We deserved to win, but at least we went down like warriors."
The turning point of a close game came when Colgate's Nate O'Neil scored on a driving layup with 5:50 left in the game and Lafayette's Jamison Panko was called for an intentional foul for grabbing O'Neil around the waist.
O'Neil hit one of two free throws, then Neale followed with two foul shots on the ensuing possession, pushing the Red Raiders ahead, 65-59. The Leopards never quite recovered.
But they didn't fold either, roaring back to within 71-69 behind excellent play by Brazzo and Kowadla.
Then, with 1:30 to go, Neale came off a triple screen to knock in a three-pointer from the corner to keep Colgate safely ahead.
Lafayette (9-19) came within one again on two free throws by Jon Norton before Hasan Brown made two free throws for the final margin.
With 12 seconds left, the Leopards called timeout and ran a play intended to allow either of the guards to shoot. Brazzo, doubled-teamed, passed to Kowadla. After the play was executed perfectly, the shot just didn't fall.
"Kowadla had a real good look at it. Just one of those things," said Lafayette coach John Leone. "His time will come."
It was the third victory over Lafayette this year by Colgate, which has strung together six straight victories for the second time this season. The Red Raiders never have made the NCAA tournament field.
Colgate coach Jack Bruen cited the intentional foul as "a big play in terms of momentum" and Neale's shot as "a big three.
"Then we made our foul shots down the stretch and weathered the storm."
The Red Raiders are undefeated (3-0) at Alumni Hall this year and wouldn't mind coming back to play Navy for the title.
"We love going on the road to get away from Hamilton, N.Y.," said Bruen. "It's a treat. There's 50 inches of snow on the ground up there. Willie Nelson's got nothing on us."
Neale, the Patriot League Player of the Year, was guarded diligently during Colgate's two games here and finished with 10-for-30 shooting, far below par.
"Teams have been putting a little big bigger guy on him and playing him physically," said Bruen. "They try to beat him up and get him a little frustrated, and they've been somewhat successful."
Four Red Raiders scored in double figures.
Navy 96, Army 84
Colgate 87, Lehigh 80
Lafayette 83, Fordham 65
Holy Cross 96, Bucknell 91
Navy vs. Holy Cross
Colgate 76, Lafayette 73
Final, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)