At this time of year for the previous four seasons, IUP has been the hot team going down the stretch in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division basketball race.
This season, that distinction belongs to Gannon.
The Golden Knights beat IUP for the second time this season, 67-62, on Saturday night in front of 3,621 fans, the largest crowd to watch a basketball game in the three seasons the Crimson Hawks have played at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. Gannon, which has won 10 of its last 11 games, ended IUP’s six-game winning streak and took over sole possession of first place in PSAC West. Gannon (16-8) improved to 11-3 in the division with three games to play, and IUP (20-3) fell to 10-3 with three games to play.
“We didn’t lose the championship tonight,” IUP senior forward Marcel Souberbielle said. “We’re still confident about what we can do. We didn’t have everyone clicking and didn’t have a good game overall. It’s disappointing, but we have to let it go quick and watch tape and get ready for the next game.”
Gannon’s season almost took a disastrous turn when a fire at the Hammermill Center on Dec. 23 caused smoke and water damage to its home court. The Knights were forced to practice at the Penn State Behrend campus in Erie, but instead of folding, they regrouped. They spent three weeks away from their home court and didn’t play there until beating IUP, 67-61 in overtime, on Jan. 15.
“It happened over Christmas,” Gannon coach John T. Reilly said. “We had the fire in our gym and got kicked out of our building. Penn State Behrend is a mile from my house, and we just kind of started to work out at noon, and the players would come to my house and my wife would feed us, and then we’d come back in at night and get some shots in. We just became closer as a group. There was a two-week period where we just kind of evolved, and then we won a lot of close games and had different people step up.”
Some different people stepped up for the Knights last night. Roger Livramento, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who entered the game averaging 6.3 points per game, scored a career-high 25 on the strength of 9-for-10 shooting from the field. Girbran Smith, a 6-3 junior guard, finished with 13 and struck the two biggest blows late in the game, driving into the lane for a pull-up jumper and then converting a four-point play after he was fouled on a 3-pointer with 1:49 remaining that stretched a four-point lead to eight. Adam Blazek, a junior guard, finished with 15 points and went over 1,000 for his career.
Gannon became the first team this season to shoot better than 50 percent against IUP, finishing at 51.1 (23-for-45). IUP entered the game allowing teams to shoot only 37.6 percent from the field.
IUP, meanwhile, matched the season-low of 37 percent shooting it enduring while losing two straight games in January.
“They played good half-court defense, but they played an excellent offensive game, probably one of their better games all year,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “They’re a tough matchup for us. Their big guys posted up inside and finished, and we gave them very little resistance defensively for most of the game inside. They were able to hang around, and then Smith made two big shots. So it was their big guys for 32 minutes, and then their guards finished us off.”
IUP started slowly but took a 31-27 lead into halftime. The Hawks stretched the margin to eight points at 42-34 with 13? minutes remaining in the game, but they scored only 12 more points in the next 12 minutes.
“They were ready to knock us out,” Reilly said. “Our defense was better the second half … and we were hoping, praying that they’d eventually miss a couple shots, and they did, and we were able to get the ball and get in transition and get back in the game.”
IUP battered its previous four opponents with a quick-strike transition game and dribble penetration in the half court that led to better than 55 percent shooting. Gannon didn’t allow the Hawks to run, instead making them settle into a half-court offense and jack up 31 3-point attempts. IUP made 12 from outside the 3-point arc and went 9-for-25 inside the line.
“They made us play half-court basketball,” Lombardi said, “and then when we did have some transition opportunities they did a good job getting back and not giving us layups. And when we had some openings we didn’t make the best decisions.
“And what they do when you drive the ball is someone will stand in front and help and leave someone else wide open. They make it tough for you to get to the rim. … I wasn’t upset at the number of 3s, and that’s what they gave us, but we didn’t take advantage of it.”
Souberbielle led IUP with 21 points. Devante Chance scored 13, and Mathis Keita had 10 points and six assists.
The Crimson Hawks have three regular-season games remaining. They play host to Mercyhurst on Wednesday.
“We’ve got to look forward,” Souberbielle said. “This is not the end of the world. Right now it’s just a loss. We have to watch tape and try to get better and think about the next game.”