The IUP Crimson Hawks are suddenly off and running.
IUP has unleashed a devastating transition attack in its last three games, all blowout victories. The latest came Saturday night in a 77-51 victory over Seton Hill in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division game at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.
The Crimson Hawks (19-2 overall, 9-2 PSAC West) ended a one-week layoff between games by shooting a season-high 57.1 percent from the field and topping 55 percent for the third straight game. IUP went on a 20-0 run in the first half and held Seton Hill to 12 points, the third-lowest total for a half in school history, in the first 20 minutes.
The reason for the high-percentage shooting is simple: IUP is getting fast-break points in transition and breaking down defenses in the half court, resulting in more layups for a team that has traditionally played half-court offense.
“Three games over 55 percent, that comes from getting layups,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said.
“We executed and got some easy buckets at the rim, and when you have some guys that can get off the dribble and make layups and drop-offs for each other, you’re going to shoot a high percentage.”
IUP’s surge in transition started with a 91-68 thrashing of Pitt Johnstown 10 days ago, continued in a 82-61 romp over Clarion last Saturday and carried into last night, the Crimson Hawks’ fifth straight win following their only losses.
“We kind of broke through on some things,” Lombardi said. “Once you run hard every time and get a layup or two, it reinforces running hard every time. … You have to break down some walls, and that takes mental toughness, and the guys have improved in those areas to get easy buckets. And getting stops on defense like we have the last few games makes more opportunities to try to beat people down court and have numbers.”
Having a couple playmaking guards surrounded by players who can finish helps, and so does good defense and rebounding. Devante Chance and Brandon Norfleet combined for 27 points and 13 assists, IUP held Seton Hill (13-9, 5-7) to 32.8 percent shooting, and the Hawks led the rebounding 35-30, giving them a plus-9 margin following a seven-game stretch in which they were outrebounded five times.
“It’s a combination of things,” Lombardi said.
“Part of it is Brandon is great in the open court and has quickness, and the other part is Devante is growing in confidence with getting the ball up ahead, and he’s doing a nice job.”
“We just emphasize it and talk about it in practice,” Chance said. “We know we’re good executing in the half court, but getting in transition is the best way to get easy layups, so that’s something we’re always working on in practice.”
Norfleet, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who was the PSAC East freshman of the year last season at Cheyney and then transferred to IUP, is capable of breaking down a defense in the half court and leading the way in transition. Not coincidentally, IUP’s transition offense and dribble penetration in the half court and have taken off since Norfleet became more comfortable playing with his new team.
“We feel like we can get more points in transition,” he said. “Coach really wants us to push the ball and get out, and that keeps us all involved in the game. That’s definitely my game. I’m more comfortable in the open court because I get to make plays.”
Defensively, IUP held Seton Hill to 4-for-25 shooting in the first half and 20-for-61 for the game. IUP has held teams below 30 percent shooting in 12 games this season, and teams are shooting only 38.2 percent on the season.
“The first half we never let them get comfortable,” Lombardi said. “A lot of it is through preparation … and we didn’t want to let them get anything easy and didn’t want to let them get their confidence going. They can make tough shots, and they’re capable of doing some damage.”
Norfleet scored 15 points to lead four IUP players in double figures. Chance and Devon Cottrell scored 12 apiece. Manny Yarde, a redshirt freshman who comes off the bench and has emerged as another guard capable of breaking down a defense, chipped in 10 points, his second straight game in double figures.
“It feels good,” Yarde said. “I don’t even notice it until after the game because I’m so into the game and having fun playing with these guys, but it feels good to contribute, finally. My teammates and Coach Lombardi have a lot of confidence in me to hit shots and do other things, so that definitely helps me.”
Nebojsa Stanojevic, a 7-foot freshman center, led Seton Hill with 16 points and eight rebounds. Malachi Leonard, a senior forward, scored 13 on 4-for-18 shooting. The Griffins played without three injured players, one starter and two reserves, and had only eight players available.
“They were a little thin,” Lombardi said, “but we wanted to keep pushing the ball and get out in transition, and the guys made pretty good decisions the first 32 minutes when we got out to a 30-point lead and did a good job of executing what we were trying to do.”
IUP has blown out three lesser opponents. The road ahead likely will be tougher with California, Mercyhurst, Gannon and Slippery Rock, all tough defensive teams, looming ahead.
“There’s still room to improve,” Lombardi said, “but our shot selection and execution has been really good and gotten us a ton of layups. You can’t get those against every defense — some make you shoot it over the top — but we’ve been able to create off the dribble. I’m confident that when we see zones and situations where it’s more of a grind-it-out game the guys will rise up to that and makes shots.”
IUP regained sole possession of first place in the PSAC West with its win and Mercyhurst’s 56-54 loss to Gannon. IUP plays at California, a 69-67 loser to Edinboro last night, on Wednesday, and second-place Gannon visits on Saturday. California handed IUP a 59-56 loss at home on Jan. 18. That followed a 67-61 loss in overtime at Gannon.
“I don’t think the Cal game is necessarily revenge,” Lombardi said. “They challenged us the first time, and we didn’t meet the challenge. It’s just a night that we have another opportunity to see if we meet the challenge. That excited me, and for the players, I think, the greater the challenge, the more excited they are to rise up and face it.”