IUP men lack mental toughness down the stretch, suffer first loss
ERIE — Joe Lombardi spent a good portion of Wednesday night’s postgame session in the locker room preaching toughness to his team.
Not the physical kind.
The mental kind.
“I’m just surprised a few guys had a little of that deer-in-the-headlights look,” Lombardi said after IUP suffered its first loss in 15 games this season, 67-61 in overtime at Gannon, in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division basketball game at the Hammermill Center.
IUP fell behind 10-0 before finding its way, let some opportunities to win the game in regulation slip away, and did not make a field goal in the five-minute overtime while being outscored 10-4.
“One of the things we talk about is physical talent and mental talent,” Lombardi said. “When you’re trying to build a team and build a championship, you go through that process with guys having certain physical abilities, but you have to be mentally right all the time.
“The mental talent part of it is being ready to go. We were a little unnerved early on, very uncomfortable, and that surprised me a little bit. … Sometimes it just takes two or three guys like that. We couldn’t get going, we spotted them and then battled back, but you have to keep going mentally.”
IUP went scoreless for the first seven minutes, missing six shots and a pair of free throws and committing four turnovers. Later, trailing by 11, the Crimson Hawks outscored Gannon 20-6 to take a 25-22 lead into halftime.
In a second half that featured nine ties and four lead changes, IUP couldn’t create any separation each time in took the lead. Then, with his team leading 57-55, IUP’s Brandon Norfleet committed a turnover with 47.9 seconds left, and Gannon’s Steve Blazek answered with a game-tying pull-up jumper from the foul line with 38.9 seconds to play.
IUP (14-1, 4-1) had the last possession of regulation, but Gannon (9-7, 4-2) switched from man-to-man to 1-2-2 zone after a timeout and denied Mathis Keita a good look on a 3-point attempt. Manny Yarde raked in the offensive rebound, but his turnaround 10-foot jumper missed the mark, and the game went to overtime.
In overtime, IUP made four free throws in the first 2:12 to take a 61-59 lead, but Blazek responded with a 3-pointer that started an 8-0 run.
IUP finished at a season-low 37.3 percent (19-for-51) shooting from the field and committed 16 turnovers that led to 17 Gannon points. Gannon, which leads the nation in rebounding margin at plus-13, outrebounded IUP by five, 34-29.
“Gannon did a good job defensively,” Lombardi said. “They were rotating and flying around. Our chance to win it was probably in regulation. We had the ball with time left, and they switched to zone and we didn’t get a good shot. We actually got a better shot on the rebound. It was Gannon’s night, and sometimes it’s just the other team’s night. But I’ve struggled with this team, wondering if we have the toughness and resiliency to keep battling one more play. That’s mental talent. We’re going to get better at it. Tonight some guys got an education, and maybe it will open up some ears and make us better.”
Although ranked fifth in NCAA Division II and undefeated going into the game, IUP rarely showed signs of a dominant team through the first 14 games.
“I really don’t think we’re a great team,” Lombardi said. “The No. 5 ranking, we probably earned that over time with the success of the program, but we haven’t been a dominant team. We’re not there. We can get there possibly. We’re just a good team that grinds it out and found a way to win a lot of games up to this point. We’ve been fortunate, and now we have to embrace our failures as we’ve embraced our success and see what we can make of it.”
Keita scored a game-high 21 points, and Marcel Souberbielle finished with 16 for IUP.
Gannon’s Girban Smith scored a career-high 18 points. D’Arius Porter finished with 14 on 6-for-7 shooting inside, Blazek scored 13, and Raphell Thomas-Edwards chipped in 11.
“We came out punching, and IUP punched right back,” Gannon coach John T. Reilly said. “It was back and forth, and Keita hit some big-time shots. Fortunately we responded back and were able to make some plays. It was just an intense basketball game by two very good teams.”
IUP will try to bounce back Saturday night at home against California (7-9, 2-4).
“A loss is never good in the short term,” Lombardi said, “but hopefully it will translate in the long run. I’ve seen teams start 14-0 and then lose five in a row. I don’t know when the next win is coming. Maybe Saturday.”