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IUP BASKETBALL: Near-record crowd provided a boost for IUP vs. Rock

by on January 27, 2014 10:40 AM

It wasn’t the largest crowd to see an IUP basketball game at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.

It might have been the most boisterous, or close to it, and it included quite the cast of characters.

Mathis Keita scored on a layup in the closing seconds to lift IUP to a 66-64 victory over Slippery Rock on Saturday night in front of 3,126 fans, the third-largest crowd since the Crimson Hawks moved into the KCAC three years ago.

Coach Joe Lombardi thinks his team got a boost from its sixth man, and the players agreed that the enthusiasm in the building helped fuel their energy as IUP improved to 16-2 and Slippery Rock fell to 15-5.

“Oh my goodness, they were awesome,” Lombardi said.

As for the crowd, it included Dr. Michael Driscoll, IUP’s president, sitting in the first row of the student section decked out in a white-out T-shirt and bow tie; members of the IUP men’s swim team, who donned Speedos and body paint and nothing else; and more than 100 Slippery Rock students — and loud ones at that — who piled onto two school buses to travel to Indiana and watch their team lose at IUP for the 24th straight time dating to the 1991-92 season. They deserve some thanks for coming, because their presence helped spur IUP’s fans into action.

“I’ve said before, this is most fun you can have before 10 o’clock on a college campus,” Lombardi said. “And how about the guys in Speedos from the swim team? Ohio State did that and they sat behind the hoop to distract the free throw shooters. I tried not to look at them because I didn’t want to get distracted. Those guys had fun, and there were other great groups here. I bet they melted some snow outside with the heat in this building with their excitement and enthusiasm. I’m proud of IUP and to be a part of this program and represent the school on a night like tonight. It brings out the best in us and the spirit of the community and the institution.”

The fans started to get into the spirit of the evening near the end of the women’s game, serenading the team with chants of “I-U-P” as the final seconds ticked away on a 66-50 victory that snapped a five-game losing streak.

They continued as the men’s teams took the court, and it really started to heat up when IUP began to mount a comeback from a nine-point deficit midway through the second half. When Keita streaked down the lane and took a pass from Devante Chance to score the winning basket on a layup with 2.3 seconds left, the place erupted.

“This place was rocking,” Keita said. “It’s one of the best games I’ve been a part of. Everybody here helped out a lot.”

Chance handed out the assist on the game-winning basket and then said the fans gave the team a big assist.

“I loved it. It was great,” he said. “It was the first game all the students were back from break, and it was promoted well on social media. And Slippery Rock bringing their fans really heightened the intensity and anxiety, and everything was so good. I loved the energy. We probably wouldn’t have won the game if it wasn’t for that.”

The second-loudest outburst of the night came with 13.2 seconds left, when Slippery Rock’s Matej Delinac was fouled on a 3-point attempt and stepped to the line to shoot three free throws. IUP’s fans screamed and stomped their feet on each attempt — the free throws came at the opposite end of the court from where the swim team was seated, so that wasn’t a distraction — and Delinac coolly made all three shots.

“All credit to Slippery Rock and that kid making three free throws in this environment,” Lombardi said. “For him to step up and do that showed a lot of courage. They’ve got a lot of toughness on that team. They play well together, and Kevin (Reynolds) is a terrific coach, and he gets his players to compete and play well together. They’re a program that helps us get better. They bring out the best in us. Our guys know how hard they have to play and how well they have to play to pull it out.”

IUP and Slippery Rock have played some instant classics the past three seasons, and Saturday’s thriller joined the ranks. The last seven meetings have been decided by a total of 23 points, an average of 3.3 points per game. IUP won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship on its home court last year, 52-46, in front of 3,151 fans, the second-largest crowd at the KCAC.

This year’s rematch is Feb. 26 at Slippery Rock.

IUP has eight games remaining in the regular season, with the second rotation of PSAC West games left to play. Half of them will be played at home the next four Saturday nights against Clarion, Seton Hill, Gannon and Edinboro. Last year, a KCAC-record 3,516 fans turned out for the Gannon game.

“I have to thank all the people that came to the game,” Keita said not long after the game-winning play, “and hopefully they’ll be here again Saturday night.”

IUP’s victory forged a four-way tie atop the PSAC West standings after Slippery Rock entered the night in sole possession of first place. IUP, Slippery Rock, Gannon and Mercyhurst are all 6-2 with eight games remaining. IUP plays at Pitt Johnstown on Wednesday to begin the second half of division play.

Tony Coccagna is a sports writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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