IUP 52, SLIPPERY ROCK 46 -- IUP claims third PSAC title in four years
They came into the season without a player who had averaged in double figures in a college season.
There were no preseason All-Americans, not even a preseason all-conference selection on the roster.
They overcame injuries and endured shooting slumps and scoring droughts, sometimes letting big leads slip away.
More often than not, though, the IUP Crimson Hawks found a way, sometimes against teams that could put a couple more talented players on the court, but none that could band together the way they did.
Now, at the end of a grueling 25-game schedule against conference opponents, the Crimson Hawks have something no one can ever take from them. They are conference champions.
IUP claimed its third Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship in four years Saturday night, beating Slippery Rock, 52-46, in a grind-it-out game in front of 2,652 fans at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. The Hawks also earned an automatic bid in next week’s NCAA Division II Atlantic Region tournament.
“Early in the year, our goal wasn’t to win the regular-season championship or the conference tournament championship,” coach Joe Lombardi said, “it was just to grow as a team, to improve, to get better and get closer together as a unit. Those are championship characteristics and the culture championship programs have. These guys bought into it 100 percent with their work ethic.
“We didn’t have to fight with them to get them in the gym to do extra work. They had a passion for it and a love for the game, and sometimes a love for the game can carry you over. They were just committed to each other and unselfish, and sometimes you just catch a little magic and the whole rises up a little bit more than the parts might.”
When the final horn sounded, the players streamed onto the court, and the student section converged with them. They hoisted sophomore guard Devante Chance and redshirt senior guard Scooter Renkin into the air, and the rest of the crowd roared their approval.
Mathis Keita, the tournament most valuable player, kept a firm grip on the championship trophy. Anthony Wells, the senior point guard, wore the net around his neck after it was clipped from the rim.
Josh Wiegand, a 6-foot-9 senior center, wore a broad smile. Wiegand, who developed into an inside threat down the stretch of the season, turned a big play with less than two minutes to go that thwarted Slippery Rock’s last charge.
“It feels amazing,” Wiegand, who transferred from Division I Loyola (Md.) before last season, said. “This is what we’ve been working for. The last two years, this is exactly what I wanted, for me, for everybody.”
With two of the conference’s top defensive teams going head to head — Slippery Rock (22-8) ranks second in the nation in field goal percentage defense at .366, and IUP (24-5) has the held teams under 40 percent routinely throughout the season — the Hawks finished the first half on a 13-5 run and took a six-point lead, 22-16, into halftime. Of those 13 points, 12 came on two 3-point field goals from Keita and one each from Renkin and Chance.
Neither team broke 30 percent shooting in the first half, and Slippery Rock never got past that mark for the game, finishing at 28.8 (15-for-52). IUP shot 36.5 percent (19-for-52), including 44 percent (11-for-25) in the second half.
IUP, which split the regular-season series with Slippery Rock, found its stroke early in the second half and bolted to a 14-point lead in the first 4½ minutes. The Hawks led by 17, 39-22, with 11 minutes to play.
Slippery Rock mounted its run from that point. The Rock outscored IUP 15-4 over the next 8? minutes — there were several questionable non-calls by the referees in that stretch — and the Hawks’ lead shrunk to four, 45-41, with 2:23 to play.
That’s when IUP went to Wiegand, its newfound inside force. Wiegand got inside position on a defender, and Marcel Souberbielle lobbed a pass over the top that Wiegand hauled in. Another defender converged on Wiegand, but he powered up, scored, drew a foul and converted a three-point play for a seven-point lead, 48-41, with 1:51 remaining.
Wiegand, a 61 percent shooter from the line this season, hit 5 of 5 last night. He has averaged 10.6 points in the last eight games, four more than his season average, and finished with 15 last night, one fewer than the career high he set on Feb. 22 in a 70-69 loss at Slippery Rock.
“Coach called my number,” Wiegand said. “I did what I was supposed to do, and Marcel made a great pass, and he’s been making passes like that all season. I was struggling with free throws the whole season, but I’ve been working on them the last couple days.”
Wiegand’s bucket took some of the air out of Slippery Rock’s surge, and Renkin deflated the Rock a little more on the next possession when he drove to the basket, drew hard contact from two defenders and scored before hitting the floor. That gave IUP a nine-point lead, 50-41, with only 57 seconds to play.
“This feels unbelievable,” Renkin said. “This team is awesome. It’s special, the way we played tonight with heart and intensity.”
Rebounding was crucial, and IUP knew it had to stay close to Slippery Rock on the boards. The Rock entered the game with a nation-leading rebounding margin of 12.3. The Hawks led the game in that area, 37-36, and even had one more offensive rebound (11-10) and six more second-chance points (16-10) than Slippery Rock.
IUP also committed only eight turnovers, one fewer than Slippery Rock.
“We knew it would be a struggle,” Lombardi said. “They’re one of the better defensive teams in the country, and we knew we were not going to shoot 55, 58 percent against these guys. A lot of the credit goes to Slippery Rock defending us, but we kept it somewhat clean with only eight turnovers. We guarded the heck out of them, too, and got out there and competed against their size and length and strength.
“And we outrebounded them, too. To be able to do that is a credit to these guys and the heart they played with. They just found a way all year long, and it’s been a lot of different ways.”