WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. — IUP’s Scooter Renkin played on a basketball team that made it to the national championship game and racked up 33 wins when he was a sophomore.
He is a senior now, and he has never seen anything like this IUP team.
This IUP team can’t measure up to that 2009-10 team in terms of talent. This team won’t dazzle anyone with its athletic ability. This team doesn’t have players that can bring the house down with thunderous dunks or buckle a defender’s knees with a crossover dribble.
This IUP team, though, dazzles with its desire.
Now, this IUP team has the chance to measure up to the best in school history after beating Slippery Rock, 53-50, in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region tournament semifinals Sunday evening and setting up a matchup with West Liberty in the championship game at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“I’ve never been a part of a team like this,” Renkin said. “This team has so much heart and passion, and these guys don’t want to lose, and they find a way to win. That’s the way it’s been all year. They scrap and claw and try to find a way. And so many guys on this team lead. This is just a special, special group.”
The Crimson Hawks improved to 26-5 with their sixth straight win, and they are getting a shot at a second championship after claiming the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title last weekend. They are getting that shot because they beat Slippery Rock for the third time in four games this season and for the second time in a span of eight days.
“They’re a really connected group,” seventh-year IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “Sometimes you just have to control what you can control, and this team has done that. You can’t control the officials’ calls, and sometimes you can’t control how the other teams play — sometimes they play great and you can’t control that. They focus on what we can control, and they’ve kind of stayed that course and had a strong mindset with that. They’re mentally tough, and their work ethic has been tremendous for six months. They’ve worked out on their own without us pushing them into the gym more than any team I’ve had. They have a way of overcoming their weaknesses, and that’s a great trait in any athletic competition.”
IUP pulled out a third win over Slippery Rock the same way it did twice this season.
“Defense,” senior center Danny Ayebo said. “Defense is our staple. We don’t get anywhere without defense. That’s our identity. We feel like we’re a great defensive team, and that’s what has taken us to where we are.”
“We knew the first one to 50 would probably win,” Lombardi said. “We didn’t need a clock, just keep playing until someone hit 50. There wasn’t going to be a lot of scoring, and we won it with defense. That’s who we are.”
IUP held Slippery Rock under 30 percent shooting for the third time this season in another grind-it-out game between the two PSAC rivals. IUP won the first meeting, 55-49; lost the second, 70-69; and won the third, 52-46.
“You almost find it hard believe it can be the same thing again,” Lombardi said. “You can’t write a script, but you know you’ve got to make plays down the stretch, make stops down the stretch. And if this team has done anything, it’s done that. And this team has a tremendous amount of resiliency. They just don’t fold. They keep going and believe in each other. Some of it is great leadership, five seniors who are all the way in and really committed to each other, and sometimes you can catch magic in a bottle a little bit and win close games if you have that type of DNA.”
Marcel Souberbielle, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, led the defensive charge, playing a key role in holding Slippery Rock’s best player, Devin Taylor, a 6-6 senior forward and all-region selection, to nine points and five rebounds.
Taylor, who entered the game averaging 14.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, had 27 points and 15 boards in the Rock’s quarterfinal win over Winston-Salem State on Saturday. He wasn’t a factor against IUP, which attacked him with Souberbielle and double-teams when he got the ball in the low post.
“I was just focused on trying to stop him,” Souberbielle said. “I knew my teammates would help me. We played them three times before so we all know each other. We know what each other’s running, the strengths and weaknesses. I was just trying to do the best I could, and today I was fortunate enough to contain him.”
It was Souberbielle who put up Taylor-like numbers, scoring 15 points and grabbing 13 rebounds for his first double-double since his freshman season and second of his career. The native of Uruguay made 6 of 11 shots, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range, played all but two of the 40 minutes and matched his career high for rebounds. He had 16 points and eight boards in Saturday’s win over East Stroudsburg, giving him 31 points and 21 rebounds in two NCAA tournament games.
“That’s as good and well-rounded performance anyone has had for us all year,” Lombardi said. “Talk about someone putting together a complete game on both ends of the court. He played a terrific game, and that individual effort on his part is as good as any player we had put forth all year long.
“That’s the thing about this team: Different guys really take the lead and perform well and just pick up other guys when those guys aren’t playing as well.”
Souberbielle stepped up on a night when Mathis Keita and Scooter Renkin, two of IUP’s leading scorers, struggled to make shots. Anthony Wells finished with 14 points, Renkin scored 11, and Keita and Wells combined for nine assists without committing a turnover. Keita also had three steals.
In the key stretch, when the season was on the line, it seemed everyone stepped up. With the score tied at 38 going into the last six minutes, Keita, 0-for-7 from the field to that point, took a feed from Wells and buried a 3-pointer for his only points of the game. Josh Wiegand followed with a short jumper that made it 43-38.
“That was really the difference in the game,” Slippery Rock coach Kevin Reynolds said. “We couldn’t get back in it. That separation, that 40-second split, was the biggest segment of the game.”
Those two buckets started an 11-2 run that put IUP in control. Renkin followed with a drive for a basket, and Wells hit two free throws before driving for a bucket to give the Hawks an eight-point lead, 49-41, with only 1:01 left.
But the game wasn’t over. Slippery Rock reeled off nine quick points during a stretch in which Renkin missed one of two free throws, Wells made two and IUP committed two turnovers, making the score 52-50 with 16.7 seconds left. Renkin had a chance to seal the game with 12.7 remaining, but he again made only one free throw, leaving the margin at three and giving the Rock a last chance to tie the game.
IUP, however, played stifling defense at the 3-point arc, and the only shot Slippery Rock could get off, a harmless 2-pointer, came after the horn sounded.
“This is special,” Renkin said. “We fly around and play with so much heart, it’s scary. That last possession, we were flying around and just clawing to get the win. Unbelievable.”
If IUP can pull off another win, that might be truly unbelievable. The Hawks play West Liberty, 32-1, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation and two-time defending regional champion, on its home court. West Liberty is 76-1 in its last 77 home games, and the Hilltoppers lead the nation in scoring at 103.7 points per game. They beat Fairmont State in Sunday’s second semifinal, 100-77.