For an IUP team that has struggled to put together complete games, Saturday night’s first-round playoff game was about as encouraging as it gets.
The Crimson Hawks rolled past Pitt Johnstown, 79-56, to open the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference women’s basketball tournament, putting together a thorough performance that went counter to past mistakes and built valuable confidence going into a showdown with first-place Edinboro.
IUP (18-9), the No. 4 seed in the PSAC West Division, advances to face the top-seeded Fighting Scots (21-5) in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Edinboro.
IUP led Edinboro at the half when the teams met Feb. 22, but, continuing a troublesome trend, failed to close out the Scots and lost, 69-63.
What the Hawks did against fifth-seeded UPJ (10-17) alleviated a lot of concerns about those problems. IUP opened the game on a 10-0 run and, after the Mountain Cats pulled even, went on an 8-0 run to close the half and plowed through the entire second half, leading by as many as 30 at one point.
“Especially at this time of the season, you just have to lay it all out there,” IUP junior forward Ashley Stoner said, “and I think we finally learned how to put two halves together, not just the first half. In this game we came out strong, we extended our lead and that’s going to help us a lot going into the future.”
IUP also had issues the week before the Edinboro game, failing to finish off Gannon, the second-place team in the PSAC West Division.
“That’s something that we’ve talked about all the time,” IUP coach Tom McConnell said. “We have been a really good first-half team. We’ve played really well against teams for 30 minutes, so we’re hoping we’ve made that breakthrough and now we’re going to be a 40-minute team, that we’re going to play two halves of good, tough, efficient basketball.”
IUP was challenged when UPJ knotted the score at 23 at the 6:23 mark in the first half, after the Hawks had flown to leads of 10-0 and 16-2.
They could have suffered another collapse, only earlier. Instead they finished the half strong and blew the Mountain Cats out of the water in the second half.
IUP shot 16 of 31 (52 percent) after the break while UPJ went 8 of 26 (31 percent). Overall, IUP made 29 of 66 field goals (44 percent), and had 22 assists, while outrebounding the Mountain Cats 50-28.
“We jumped out to the big lead and then they came back and they tied the game,” McConnell said. “At that point it’s like, OK, this is the way a playoff game should be. We’re going to have to battle every possession. We’re going to have to fight and go out and get this. To see us do that, finish the half strong and then come out and start the second half and really create that separation was a good thing. It was just a matter of resolve, of being tough and having that discipline to get stops and be efficient offensively.”
“As a team we stuck together and said, ‘We’re not letting them come back,’” IUP junior guard Lindsay Stamp said, “because that’s something we’ve let teams do in the past.”
The 5-foot-10 Stamp led IUP with 21 points on 7 of 13 shooting. Stoner was 7 of 11 and scored 15 points. Leslie Stapleton also went for 15, and Amy Fairman added 10 points.
“I was getting a lot of great post passes from the guards, and especially in the second half we were getting a lot of inside-outside action,” the 6-foot-1 Stoner said. “One time I hit Leslie for the 3 and the next time down she hit me and I got the left-handed layup in. We were just very unselfish tonight.”
“We tried to establish the inside presence,” McConnell said. “We went to Ashley Stoner early and often, tried to get her the ball on the block and let her go to work. She scored, she got fouled. The same thing with Lindsay — she had a guard on her. We wanted to try to create that mismatch with her, score and get fouled. She ended up being 5-for-6 from the line.”
IUP improved to 8-0 with its regular starting lineup of Stoner, Stamp, Stapleton, Fairman and Marita Mathe. Wednesday’s regular-season finale at Slippery Rock marked the first time the five started together since Dec. 2.
“This team has battled a lot of things,” McConnell said. “We lost Marita after our sixth game, we lost Lindsay for six games, Ashley went out with a concussion and didn’t practice, Leslie broke her nose. I could go right down the list. … We’re healthy and we have been able to put some good practices together. When you have people out, they’re not practicing, so they’re not developing that chemistry or continuity.”
It’s one thing to put it all together against UPJ or last-place Slippery Rock. IUP has the chance to do a lot more Tuesday.
“We have something to prove,” Stamp said. “Our record doesn’t show how good we are. We are a great team, and we all have something we have to show.”
IUP lost its first game to Edinboro, 66-59, on the road on Jan. 22.
“They’re a really good basketball team; their record is not an accident,” McConnell said of Edinboro. “With that being said, we are confident that if we play to our potential, we can go up there and we can win the basketball game. We’ve played them tough both times, at their place and here. It’s the playoffs. It’s a great challenge to go on the road and take on the No. 1 seed, so we’re looking forward to that challenge.”