IUP BASKETBALL: -- Hawks breeze to 9-0 as Lombardi gets best of former assistant
December 19, 2013 10:40 AM
by TONY COCCAGNA

Once upon a time IUP didn’t have a good basketball team.

Given IUP’s recent success, that might sound like the start of a fairy tale, but it is true.

In 2006-07, IUP’s first season under coach Joe Lombardi, the Crimson Hawks were facing the possibility of NCAA probation, the talent on the team was thin, and there were few building blocks to lay the foundation for a successful program.

Chris Fite remembers. He was there as an assistant coach on Lombardi’s staff.

Lombardi’s first IUP team finished 6-21, the second 13-15. In the next five seasons, IUP won more than 20 games, captured three Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championships, earned five NCAA tournament berths and even played in the NCAA Division II championship game. It has been the most successful run in school history for a program that now counts itself among the nation’s elite.

Fite is now a first-time head coach at Shippensburg University. His roster is thin, the talent is young, and the wins are going to be few and far between. The Raiders dropped to 1-7 Wednesday night, losing to IUP by 31 points, 77-46, in Fite’s homecoming game at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. IUP, ranked seventh in the country, improved to 9-0.

“It’s very similar,” Fite said, looking back on that 2006-07 season. “You’re changing the culture, changing the mindset, changing a lot of things, and just the scheme — everything is new for these guys. The experience I had here with Coach is invaluable, and now it’s one of those things that you just keep plugging away and remind yourself that it’s a marathon and just concentrate on getting better day in and day out, and hopefully the results will take care of themselves.”

Fite has a good blueprint from which to work. But he wasn’t exactly looking forward to coaching against his former team.

“It’s been on my mind since I took the job,” he said. “It was fun to get back and great to see everybody, but I’m glad to have it in the rearview mirror now. I’m proud of the way our guys competed. We dropped off a little bit, and we’ve suffered from that all season, competing for a little while but not having the depth and mentality and different things to put together 40 minutes, but we’re working on it.”

Prior to the game, Lombardi presented Fite with a plaque in recognition of the success he helped establish at IUP, and the 1,500 fans on hand — including his mother, stepmother and grandmother, and several former IUP players — gave him a standing ovation.

Then his team took the floor and stuck with IUP for the first 12 minutes before the Hawks pulled out to a 12-point halftime lead, 36-24.

In the second half, it was still a 14-point game at 54-40 with 10 minutes to play, but IUP steadily extended the lead while holding the Raiders to six points the rest of the way.

“He knows where they’re at right now,” Lombardi said, “and I understand they don’t have a great team. But they have some young guys, and you’ve got to put layers on it, and they’ll get better in time. That’s all part of the process, and he knows it. As a young head coach you learn from that and coach with patience, and he’s doing a good job with that and understanding where his players are at right now in their careers and the talent level. With his coaching style he’ll build a lot of confidence instead of harping on what they can’t do, and that will help them grow. That’s what good coaches do: try to keep it positive, stick with the process and understand that it does take time.”

Shippensburg has a couple good guards in sophomore Joe Lococo and freshman Abe Massaley, but the Raiders had only seven players available in their rotation last night. Dylan Edgar, a 6-foot-10 all-conference senior center, was lost for the season during preseason workouts, and reserve forward David Craig did not play.

Lococo, who entered the game averaging 19.1 points per game, finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals, and Massaley scored 10 points.

“We have some talented kids, and we’re young,” Fite said. “And this is valuable experience for these guys. It’s hard to go through, but we’ll be that much better for it later in the season and at the end of the season and next year and the year after. We’ll get Dylan back eventually, and that will make a big difference, and we’ll keep recruiting. I’m optimistic about the future.”

Five IUP players scored in double figures, led by Mathis Keita with 19 points. Devante Chance and Brandon Norfleet scored 11 apiece, and Jeremy Jeffers and Devon Cottrell each had 10.

Jeffers, a 6-6 junior forward, also grabbed 10 rebounds for his first career double-double after transferring from Division I Drake in the offseason.

IUP led the rebounding by 14, 38-24, forced 19 turnovers and committed only nine. Norfleet, Chance and Keita combined for 15 assists and only two turnovers.

Defensively, the Crimson Hawks unveiled a 1-3-1 zone and played it for about 10 possessions. It led to some turnovers in rapid succession when IUP pulled away in the first half.

“They’re good. They’re talented,” Fite said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a 1-3-1 zone in about 10 years, so obviously that was a surprise. They made a couple plays that allowed the momentum to shift and it just got away from us. We have young guys, and the only way to gain the experience is to go through some tough patches.”

IUP installed the 1-3-1 only recently, with the 6-4 Norfleet joining the lineup this week after sitting out the first seven games due to academic ineligibility.

“We’ve been working on it,” Lombardi said. “We were waiting for Brandon to play it because you need some length at the top of it, and he gives us that. We have length on the wings, too. … It’s one of those things that catches people off guard. We got some film on it tonight, and that will help us understand what our weaknesses are with it. It was a good time to experiment with it, and in the first half it gave us a nice little spurt.”

IUP plays at Kutztown (3-5) on Saturday afternoon and then takes a two-week break from games over the holidays.

“We just want to win that one,” Lombardi said, “and try to keep getting better.”

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