WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. — IUP coach Joe Lombardi had a nice talk with his team at halftime of Saturday’s NCAA Division II Atlantic Region basketball game at West Liberty University.
“I just walked in and said we had a nice trip down here, you’re really playing nice, and let’s play a little bit nicer,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi was kidding, of course. His message was harsh, and his players got it, loud and clear.
“It was a little different than Coach’s interpretation,” senior point guard Anthony Wells said, “but that’s what we needed. He came in and let us know how serious it is in the NCAA tournament and this was the time to perform. The guys did a great job responding, and maybe we needed that little boost. It worked out well for us.”
IUP trailed East Stroudsburg by four points, 34-30, at halftime but rallied for a 76-68 victory to advance to today’s regional semifinal against a familiar opponent, Slippery Rock, at 5 p.m.
“They got challenged a little bit at halftime,” Lombardi said. “Sometimes guys need to be challenged, and sometimes they don’t.”
IUP didn’t face a huge margin at halftime, but maybe the Crimson Hawks were a little lucky to be that close considering the number of defensive breakdowns they had and the lack of execution they displayed against the East Stroudsburg press and in their half-court offense in the first 20 minutes. IUP committed eight turnovers and barely escaped several more, and the offense was often out of sync.
The Hawks responded in the second half, shooting 64 percent from the field and cutting their turnovers to five. They also got some key stops down the stretch when they began to pull away in the last seven minutes.
“We did a good job handling the pressure, for the most part,” Lombardi said. “They had five steals, and that’s probably the low mark of the season for a team that averages 11. We played with great will at the end and great confidence. We were a little tentative at times in the first half, but sometimes you do that against a team when you’re not used to getting pressed, and sometimes you do that when it’s the opening game of the NCAA tournament. So hopefully we’ll be able to work through that and won’t be as tentative (today).”
Wells and fellow senior Scooter Renkin led the charge. Wells buried six 3-point field goals, one shy of the school record for an NCAA tournament game, and finished with a team-high 22 points, and Renkin scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half. Four IUP players scored in double figures.
With the game tied at 54 in a back-and-forth second half, Wells drilled his last 3 to put IUP ahead for good at the 9:24 mark, and Renkin scored on a drive and converted a three-point play that gave the Hawks an eight-point lead, 69-61, with 2:30 left. Renkin’s bucket was big for two reasons: It padded the lead, and it sent East Stroudsburg’s Whis Grant to the bench with his fifth foul. Grant scored a game-high 26 points in only 28 minutes on 10-for-13 shooting.
In between, senior center Josh Wiegand scored six of his 10 second-half points, and Devante Chance became the only IUP player other than Wells to make a 3-pointer when he took a pass from Mathis Keita in the left corner and coolly swished a shot as the shot clock expired to stretch a one-point lead to four with 6:54 left.
“It was a well-played game both ways,” East Stroudsburg coach Jeff Wilson said. “Early on we had the advantage with our pressure and were able to dictate some things in the full court. The second half they changed things a little bit and went with a lot more high ball-screen action, which gave us some problems. Renkin did a good job off those, and that gave them some easy opportunities, and Wells got his feet set coming out of transition and was able to knock down some shots. Ultimately, those two things were the difference in the second half.”
In the first half, with Renkin and Keita struggling to score, Marcel Souberbielle, a 6-7 junior forward, teamed with Wells in carrying the load. Souberbielle scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half, and he finished with a game-high eight rebounds.
“Marcel was huge for us,” Wells said. “We were struggling the first half and he was the one who was really consistent at putting the ball in the basket. Marcel is beginning to be more of a leader, vocally, and guys feed off that. I’m usually the voice of the team, but now it’s becoming more spread out.”
IUP (25-5), the third seed, plays today against Slippery Rock, one its fiercest rivals in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. The teams split two close games in the regular season, and IUP beat the Rock in the conference championship game at home last Saturday, 52-46.
Slippery Rock (23-8), the seventh seed, advanced by knocking off Winston-Salem State, the second seed, 69-67. The Rock trailed 66-61 with just under three minutes to play before finishing the game on an 8-1 run that was capped by Tabari Perry’s tiebreaking layup with 2.6 seconds left. Devin Taylor scored 27 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for Slippery Rock.
“It’s going to be another challenge for us, just the same as if we were playing any other team at this point,” Lombardi said. “I don’t think any of the games from the past are going to have any effect on this game. All games have a life of their own, and this one will have a life of its own. I’m sure they’ll be highly motivated, and our guys will be the same. I expect it to be a 40-minute grind.”
Slippery Rock won an NCAA tournament first-round game for the first time in school history.
“They’re one of the best-coached teams in the region and arguably have the best talent in the region,” Slippery Rock coach Kevin Reynolds said. “So we have our hands full, and we have to go back and rest and get to the drawing board to get ready for them because they played very well this afternoon.”
In today’s other semifinal, West Liberty (31-1), the top seed and two-time defending region champion, faces Fairmont State (23-8), the fourth seed, in a showdown between West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference teams. West Liberty romped past Bowie State (16-14), the eighth seed, 114-82, and Fairmont State rolled over Livingstone (22-7), the fifth seed, 91-73.
West Liberty beat Fairmont three times this season, 82-77 and 103-99 in the regular season and 92-78 in the conference championship game.
Today’s winners meet in the championship game at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and the regional champion plays in the Elite Eight in Louisville, Ky., beginning March 28.