IUP BASKETBALL: Division title, playoff bye still within reach for Crimson Hawks
All is not lost.
A division championship, a first-round bye in the playoffs, a conference championship are all within reach as IUP enters the last week of the regular season.
IUP lost to Gannon, 67-62, on Saturday night and fell out of first place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division. Six teams qualify for the conference tournament, with first-round byes going to the top two teams.
To take the smoothest path to that bye, IUP must beat Mercyhurst on Wednesday at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. The Crimson Hawks (20-3, 10-3 PSAC West) and Lakers (14-9, 10-3) are tied for second place with three games to play. Gannon holds first place at 11-3 with two games to play.
“Players are often more resilient than coaches or fans,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “The ability to get back to practice and compete in practice allows you to move forward. All year we talk about the next play. When you win, you move on to the next play. When you lose, you move on to the next play. When you turn it over, you move on to the next play. When you make a great shot, you move on to the next play.
“Sports is all about moving on. We’re still in position to win a division championship — we control our own destiny — and that’s our goal. But more than that, we try to deal in small, short-term goals, and that’s win practice today, and whatever challenges there are, to address those and then try to meet the challenges Wednesday.”
Mercyhurst has offered stiff challenges for IUP over the past three seasons. The Lakers beat IUP two straight games at home before the Hawks snapped that streak on Jan. 11, holding on for a 53-50 victory after leading by as many as 13 points.
“They play great matchup defense, and it’s different than what anyone else plays, so the uniqueness of it adds to the strong fundamentals they already have with it,” Lombardi said. “You need guys to read the floor and make good decisions. That’s the challenge on the defensive end, and offensively they have a lot of balance, and you have to do a good job with the scouting report and know a lot of different personnel. They run a lot of different plays or sets, so you have to have good mental preparation in order to anticipate what might be coming.
“They’re also a team that has won a lot of close games this year. They know how to win close games, and there’s a lot of value in that. They know how to come back — they fought back up there, and they were down 12 or 13 to Edinboro the other night — so they’re a resilient group and a group with great intangibles.”
Mercyhurst has won six of its past seven games. Nine of the Lakers’ 14 wins have come by seven or fewer points, and one other came in overtime. They also have five close losses.
IUP’s three losses have come by a total of 14 points, including one in overtime. The Hawks’ win at Mercyhurst was their last in a 14-0 start.
“A lot of time we try to focus just as much, if not more, on who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish on both ends and playing with passion on every possession,” Lombardi said. “We’ve done that really well in some games, and some games not as well. We also have to play through different failures that come during the course of a game so they don’t stack up and just keep turning the tide and continue to compete on every possession.”
While the top two teams in each PSAC division, West and East, earn byes, the other teams play in the first round. The third-place team takes on the sixth-place team, and the fourth-place team faces the fifth-place team. The highest seeds get home games.
After the first round, the 4-5 winner plays at the first-place team, and the 3-6 winner plays at the second-place team. The semifinals and finals will be contested at the highest remaining seed in the PSAC East.
“Getting the bye is really not something I spend a whole lot of time thinking about,” Lombardi said. “If I do, then I’m not thinking about how our team needs to get better and not thinking about the challenge the next opponent brings. But I guess a bye means you’ve automatically won your first game, so anytime you can automatically win a game, I guess you’d like to have it. But I really spend no time worrying about seeding or home-court advantage. If you do those things as a coach and place importance on them and then they don’t happen, then you’ve already set up the message that you’re extremely disadvantaged since you didn’t get it.”