The next game is always the biggest game of the season.
That’s cliche, but in the case of the IUP Crimson Hawks, the next game is the biggest game of the season — to this point.
IUP plays host to Gannon on Saturday night at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex with first place on the line in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division. IUP (20-2, 10-2 PSAC West) holds a half-game lead over Gannon (15-8, 10-3) in the 16-game race.
Last year’s IUP-Gannon game drew 3,516 fans, the largest crowd to see a game in the three seasons the Crimson Hawks have been playing at the KCAC, which seats 4,000. This year’s could be bigger, with Giant Eagle distributing vouchers for free tickets and the Crimson Crazies, the team’s student cheering section, promoting the game as “Silent Night” — fans are supposed to remain silent until IUP scores its 10th point, at which point they are supposed to cheer like crazy.
“This is the type of game, when you’re competing for a conference championship, you hope to get a home-court advantage,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “We’d like to get as close as we can to filling the place up, if not selling it out. If you like college basketball, there’s no better place in Pennsylvania to watch a game. If you like teams that play hard and play together, you’ll see two of them on Saturday.”
IUP and Gannon are two good defensive teams with deliberate offenses that have a history of playing grind-it-out games. Gannon won this season’s first matchup, 67-61 in overtime, in Erie on Jan. 15.
Gannon comes in as the hottest team in the PSAC West.
The Golden Knights, 6-7 at the start of January, have won nine of their last 10 games. IUP has won six straight following its only losses of the season.
“They have great competitors and they stress defense, and they’re one of the better defensive teams in the country,” Lombardi said. “They have a very good post player and one of the better guards in the league so they pose a lot of problems on both ends.”
IUP unleashed a newfound and potent transition game in its last four games, all blowout victories. The Crimson Hawks, typically a half-court offense team, are running more this year than in any time in eight seasons under Lombardi. Getting out in transition likely will be harder against Gannon, which allows only 59.4 points per game and has a rebounding margin of plus-10.
The addition of Brandon Norfleet, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard who thrives in the open court, has helped fuel the surge on a team that plays with a smaller lineup than IUP has used in the past.
“I don’t think we’ve reinvented ourselves,” Lombardi said. “We’ve just grown over the last few weeks as a team. Even though we’ve had a stretch of winning by a big margin, I remind the guys that we’re never that good. I’m not drinking that juice and feeling that we have it solved and everything figured out. I do know we’re doing some things well: sharing the ball, passing, really playing for each other and caring about each other.
“We play the top three teams in the league in the next two weeks, and if we’re able to perform at a high level, then maybe we have reinvented ourselves. Right now I think we’ve gotten somewhat better. We still have to play better at both ends of the floor if we want to win a conference championship, which is what we’re shooting for now.”
Lombardi figures there aren’t many, if any, blowout victories coming in the last four game of the regular season. IUP plays host to Gannon, Mercyhurst and Edinboro in succession before closing the regular season on the road at Slippery Rock. Those opponents, with the exception of Edinboro, hold the second through fourth spots in the division.
“I just enjoy when we win by one and the guys play hard and play together,” Lombardi said. “I like the attitude of this team and the culture that we have. I’ve said a number of times: You start with a roster, a bunch of guys on the roster with the same uniforms that go through the same practices, and as time goes on you hope to have a team, and to do that they have to sacrifice some of themselves for each other. You hope they begin to love one another. That’s a powerful word, but when you make sacrifices and are committed to each other, that’s what love is. These guys have a really strong feeling for each other, and they’re growing, and I’m proud of where we’re at. But we’ve just set the stage right now.”
IUP started a new season with returning starters and seniors Marcel Souberbielle and Mathis Keita, first-time starting point guard Devante Chance and four new players in the regular rotation of eight.
“We really want to do it for everybody on the team — Marcel and Mathis, it’s their last year,” Jeremy Jeffers, one of the first-year players, said. “We’ve really been in a great mindset the last couple weeks, and we’re trying not to lose the rest of the season. That’s our goal, and we’re trying to achieve it.”