IUP BASKETBALL: Men gain sole possession of first place
When it comes to his IUP basketball team, coach Joe Lombardi views each season as a puzzle.
This year, the pieces are starting to fall into place.
IUP won its fourth straight game following its only two losses of the season, blowing out Clarion, 82-61, at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division game that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicates. The Crimson Hawks (18-2, 8-2) also surged back into first place in the PSAC West, a spot they relinquished with those two losses, and hold a half-game lead over Mercyhurst, which was idle Saturday.
“I don’t like to project as far as we arrived or where we want to be because it’s a very dynamic process from week to week and game to game,” Lombardi said. “All I know is I’m happy with how we performed this week on offense and defense, and we’re starting to play the way I envisioned we were capable of playing on both ends of the court. But next week is another challenge, and there’s nothing guaranteed. But we’re breaking down some barriers of how hard we have to compete every possession and how together we have to be to be really good. And we’re starting to trust each other on offense, and some guys are growing in confidence on the offensive end, so we’ve been a little more productive than we were in the month of January.”
IUP came into the season with four new players in a rotation of eight, a new starting point guard and new roles for just about everyone. The lone seniors, Marcel Souberbielle and Mathis Keita, have been the go-to scorers, averaging a combined 32 points per game, and Devante Chance, a junior point guard starting for the first time after two years as a reserve, has been solid running the team.
Brandon Norfleet, the PSAC East Freshman of the Year at Cheyney last season before transferring to IUP in the offseason, turned in his best games of the season this week and looked more comfortable on the court while giving the Hawks a third scorer to complement Souberbielle and Keita. Norfleet has played in 13 games after sitting out the first seven due to an academic issue.
One of the other newcomers, Drake transfer Jeremy Jeffers, has started throughout the season and become a reliable complementary scorer, rebounder and defender.
“We’re really coming together,” Jeffers said. “We’re starting to trust each other, and we’re each identifying our roles, and that’s really helping us to come together and do well on offense and defense.”
From the bench, redshirt sophomore Devon Cottrell has been strong in the post, and redshirt sophomore Manny Yarde has emerged as an offensive threat. Jesse Bosnik, a graduate student who is playing one season of basketball after spending three years as a college baseball player and three in the pros, brings defense off the bench.
“It feels like we’re clicking,” Keita said. “We beat two teams by 20-plus points the last two games, but at the same time, we can’t just think we’ve arrived and don’t have to get better. We did make some improvement, and now we’re used to playing with Brandon, and he’s been playing great, too. We’re getting pretty good chemistry right now.”
IUP shot a season-high 56.4 percent (31-for-55) from the field against Clarion (4-14, 2-8), led the rebounding by 16, 35-19, and committed only 10 turnovers. IUP rolled over a Clarion team that was coming off an 86-85 overtime upset of Slippery Rock.
“I was real pleased with how we competed,” Lombardi said. “It was the same thing as Wednesday. We seemed to be more mature. We seemed to be committed to the process and committed to playing for one another. We played really good for 32 minutes and stretched it to 30 there. Then, I don’t know, maybe we lost interest. But I told them, ‘You know what? Anytime you get up 30 with eight minutes to go, you can play any way you want to play.’ I guess that’s a luxury to have so I’m not going to let that bother me too much.”
Norfleet, a 6-foot-4 guard who scored a career-high 25 points in a 91-68 romp over Pitt Johnstown on Wednesday, scored 20 more, with 16 coming in the first half when IUP used a 19-0 run to bury its opponent in a 20-point hole that reached 30 in the second half. Souberbielle finished with 14 points, Keita had nine points and seven assists without committing a turnover, and Chance scored 13 points.
“Brandon is a very good open-floor player,” Lombardi said. “He can get to the rim, and he has very good timing on his passes and good accuracy. He has to work to get better in the half court, but in transition he has done an excellent job, and if people try to press us, he’s able to make plays for himself and other guys.”
Yarde, a 6-3 guard, had his best game as a collegiate player, scoring 11 points to reach double figures for the first time, matching Norfleet with a game- and career-high seven rebounds and handing out three assists without a turnover.
“He’s finding a nice pace to his game and understanding how he can impact the game in a positive way,” Lombardi said. “He always defends and always rebounds — you know you’re going to get that — and he’s getting better at making plays off the dribble and finishing at the rim.”
IUP lost two straight in mid-January, to Gannon in overtime and California, while shooting a season-low 37 percent in each game. The Hawks broke the streak at Edinboro on Jan. 22 and then knocked off Slippery Rock, 66-64, which was in first place at the time, when Keita scored the game-winning layup with 2.3 seconds to play in front of more then 3,100 fans at the KCAC last Saturday. Then they blew out Pitt Johnstown and Clarion this week, shooting better than 55 percent from the floor each time, dominating the rebounding and committing a combined 19 turnovers.
“Whatever recognition this team gets at this point,” Lombardi said, “they’ve earned it, and they deserve it, being 18-2 at this time of the year. This team has developed its own identity of competitiveness, unselfishness and great mental preparation for each opponent. And this team, over the course of the year, has been a low-turnover team and not a great but a good rebounding team. Those are some qualities we like to have in our program and our teams, and they’re starting to absorb it was we go forward.”
One of the biggest challenges Lombardi faces in the coming week is getting his team to keep its edge. IUP doesn’t play Wednesday — with nine teams in the division, each has a bye week. The Hawks play host to Seton Hill, one of the conference’s newcomers along with Pitt Johnstown, on Saturday. IUP beat Seton Hill, 56-54, on Dec. 7.
“This was a feel-good game for everybody,” Lombardi said, “and now we have a bye Wednesday, so we have a week to try to get better, and that’s going to be a challenge because the guys want to be out there. My job is to make sure we bring that edge to practice.”