Kevin Reynolds would like to experience something he hasn’t seen since 1992.
That was the last time Reynolds watched a Slippery Rock basketball team win on IUP’s home court.
Reynolds was on the other side at the time, watching an IUP team on which he was an assistant coach absorb a 79-73 loss. In 21 meetings since, Slippery Rock has come up empty at IUP, including all six games since Reynolds took over as head coach at the Rock. Reynolds is 4-11 against IUP.
“We’ve lost to them more than any other team in my 5? years here,” Reynolds said. “If we want to take the next step, we need to start beating IUP and not just keeping the games close.”
IUP blocked Slippery Rock’s path last year, winning 55-49 at home and later claiming the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division title on the last night of the season, giving the Crimson Hawks the right to serve as the host for the conference tournament. Slippery Rock came to IUP and took a 52-46 loss in the championship game. The following week IUP and Slippery Rock met in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region tournament at West Liberty, W.Va., and the Hawks prevailed again, 53-50.
“Hopefully Saturday night we can do more than play a close game,” Reynolds said. “This group can hopefully do that, but a lot of other groups in the past five years haven’t been able to win there. Saturday night we have to play better than we have at their place.”
Slippery Rock holds the upper hand entering this weekend. Reynolds’ team is 15-4 and leads the PSAC West at 6-1.
IUP is 15-2 and 5-2, tied with Mercyhurst for third place. Gannon (11-7, 6-2) is second.
“We’re looking up at them in the standings right now,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said, “but anytime we play them we never feel that we’re an underdog or a favorite, it’s just always a pretty balanced matchup and usually comes down to who plays better that night, not necessarily who’s the better team. Even though we won three out of four last year, we don’t sit back and feel like we’re the better team, we just happened to be a little bit better on the nights we played them.”
Slippery Rock has won five straight games, most recently beating Seton Hill, 72-71, at home on Wednesday. IUP, which won its first 14 games, snapped a two-game losing streak by winning at Edinboro, 69-66, the same night.
“They have a good team,” Lombardi said. “They’re going to be there until the end, in the hunt for the West championship, the conference championship and an NCAA bid. They have the talent, and they’re capable of doing any one of them or all three of them.”
This Slippery Rock team is typical of the kind Reynolds has put on the floor as a head coach. There are a lot of transfers — 12 on a 17-man roster — and the players are long and athletic. Defense and rebounding are strengths, with Slippery Rock holding teams to 37 percent shooting from the floor and 63.4 points per game and dominating on the boards by a margin of plus-12 while averaging 14 offensive rebounds per game.
This team, though, has something past Rock teams have not possessed: the ability to shoot from 3-point range. No one averages more than four attempts per game, but eight players have shot between 22 and 67 in 19 games.
“They certainly have that Slippery Rock style to them,” Lombardi said. “Kevin does a good job of getting them to play hard and really compete and play great defense. They’re always one of the top defensive teams in the league, if not the best defensive team, and then they’re always one of the top 10 in the country in rebounding.
“This year the one thing that stands out is they shoot the ball better than they have in the past from 3. They’re not only a good defensive team, they’re a better offensive team than they were last year. They don’t have just one or two guys that can shoot it; they have eight guys that take on three a game or more. And they all shoot about 35 percent. That creates some defensive challenges.”
Maurice Lewis-Briggs, a 6-foot-8 senior transfer from Morehead State, leads Slippery Rock in scoring at 15.9 points per game.
“He’s probably a first-team all-league player,” Lombardi said. He gets 16 a game and seven rebounds and has a real efficient field goal percentage. They’re an older team — they start four seniors — and even though they lost a lot of guys from last year, Kevin has done a good job replacing them with a couple one-year players.”
IUP has struggled at times offensively in the seven games since returning from Christmas break, shooting 42 percent from the floor, including 25 percent (32-for-128) from 3-point range. The Hawks have been outrebounded in five of those seven games.
“There are some things we want to improve on,” Lombardi said. “I’m happy with our approach to things and our togetherness. We’ve always been a program that stresses trying to have high intangibles, and when we do that it gives us the chance for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. If we’re not a high intangible team, then we become very average.”
Slippery Rock struggled coming out of break, losing at Millersville before beating Shippensburg and Kutztown, two of the weaker teams in the PSAC East, in fairly close games. They have since reeled off wins over Edinboro, Mercyhurst and Seton Hill.
“We’re playing better and getting better,” Reynolds said. “We’re not happy with how we’ve played, if that makes sense. We haven’t played a full 40 minutes, and we have a lot of room to improve. Last year I thought we were playing a lot better than we are now. But we have nine more league games against a lot of good teams, with IUP being one of the better ones. We’re going to have to play a complete game to be in the game on the road at their place.”