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The Diplomats are going to the championship game, but their road to get there was anything but easy.

After building a 22-point lead in the opening half, Franklin & Marshall’s men’s basketball team held off a ferocious second-half rally by Lancaster Bible College before pulling away for a 68-54 win Friday night in the opening round of the William Marshall Tip-Off Tournament.

The season-opening win sends the Diplomats to Saturday night’s title game at 7:30 against Christopher Newport, which downed Marywood 87-56 in Friday’s other first-round game.

F&M’s victory also marked the first official win for interim head coach for Nick Nichay, who took over after Glenn Robinson retired Nov. 5 after 48 years as head coach.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Nichay, who also led the Diplomats for 14 games in Robinson’s absence over the previous two seasons. “They never are.”

It started out looking easy for the Diplomats, who had to wait an extra week to kick off their season after their scheduled opener last Friday was postponed by an on-court protest by F&M students.

They sprinted out to a 9-0 lead before the Chargers (0-2) got on the board 5:06 into the game. Eventually, a 14-0 run pushed the F&M lead to 25-7.

“We got off to a really good start, which helped,’’ said Nichay. “We’ve just been anxious to get out there and play.”

The Diplomats’ largest lead was 37-15, which came at the 1:58 mark of the first half before they settled for a 39-23 advantage at the break.

An 8-0 run by the Chargers cut the Diplomat lead to 45-38 with 12:35 to play.

“We knew they weren’t going to go away,” said Nichay. “They had some success with the press defense. We knew a big key at halftime was being able to handle that press. We didn’t do a good enough job at times and at other times we did.”

Matt Redhead scored F&M’s next five points, sandwiched around a pair of LBC free throws, and the lead was back to 50-40 with 11:35 left.

The Chargers could only get as close as nine the rest of the way.

Les Thomas paced the Diplomats with a career-high 20 points, while Justin Kupa added 11 and Redhead finished with 11. Brian Hines, from Manheim Township, matched his career best with six points.

William Afoakwah led LBC with 13 points and nine rebounds. Jordan Shewbridge, a Garden Spot graduate, started and had six points. Luke Beers and Adam Stoltzfus, both from Lampeter-Strasburg, finished with two points each for the Chargers.

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