SLIPPERY ROCK — Fans turned out in droves to see a beat-down at Slippery Rock’s Morrow Field House on Wednesday night.
That’s exactly what they saw, but they left disappointed.
IUP won the physical battle and the game, beating Slippery Rock, 69-55, to claim a share of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division title with its ninth win in 10 games.
“They’ve got a lot of big boys in there and a lot of aggressive, tough, physical guys,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said, “but we’ve got some tough, physical guys, too.”
Approximately 2,800 fans packed the field house to near capacity — it was more than four times Slippery Rock’s average attendance for the season and nearly triple its previous largest crowd of the season — for a game the home team had hyped all month. The Rock’s well-schooled fans were loud and enthusiastic, but IUP and its 100-or-so fans had the final word.
One person who wasn’t there to witness it was Slippery Rock coach Kevin Reynolds, who served a one-game administrative suspension about which athletic department officials would not comment.
IUP, meanwhile, claimed a share of the PSAC West title with Gannon. IUP won the previous four titles outright.
“I don’t ever want to take for granted winning a regular-season championship,” Lombardi said. “Winning is not easy. There are challenges and good teams and good coaches in this league, and we feel fortunate to be able to win enough games to share in that title.”
IUP (23-3, 13-3) tore through a defense that was allowing opponents to shoot only 38 percent from the floor, and the Crimson Hawks dominated the boards in the second half against a team that was ranked fifth in NCAA Division II in rebounding margin. IUP shot 51.9 percent (28-for-54) from the floor on the strength of dribble penetration that led to 50 points in the paint. The Hawks led the rebounding 38-30, including 19-10 in the second half while limiting Slippery Rock (19-9, 10-6) to two offensive boards.
“I told them it was all going to come down to rebounding and togetherness,” Lombardi said. “If we didn’t have that, we didn’t have a chance to win.”
“That was our focus,” IUP junior forward Jeremy Jeffers said. “We just really, really focused on the boards, and we did a good job with that tonight.”
IUP took the lead at 6-5 and never gave it up. The Hawks led by as many as 10 points in the first half and held a seven-point margin, 32-25, at halftime.
In the second half, IUP stretched the lead back to 10 in the opening minutes. Slippery Rock made a couple runs, but the Hawks had an answer each time. The Rock pulled within one at 41-40, only to be stifled by an 8-2 burst. They pulled within three, only to be stopped by an 8-1 run that set the score at 57-47 with 6:49 to play. From there, IUP used a 7-1 run to extend the lead to 16 with 4:13 left. Slippery Rock never threatened again.
Slippery Rock opened the second half by making its first seven shots and then made only five of its last 18. IUP held the Rock to 37.3 percent shooting (22-for-59).
“We just methodically attacked them in the second half,” Lombardi said, “and we got stops. They made a couple runs, but I felt like the guys could play through that. When they made a run I didn’t feel like we were doing anything that wrong that I needed to pull them together. We did a great job of executing out of timeouts and got layups, and it’s a credit to these guys that their execution was really good. To come on the road and win a game you need to win to win another conference championship and execute the way we did and play that well on offense, it was a great response to the challenge at hand.”
IUP’s Mathis Keita, who scored the game-winning layup in the closing seconds of a 66-64 win over Slippery Rock at home on Jan. 25, poured in a game-high 21 points on 10-for-12 shooting. Jeffers finished with a career-high 17 points and tied with Marcel Souberbielle for the game high in rebounds with nine. Point guard Devante Chance scored 10 points and dished out six assists without committing a turnover.
Slippery Rock’s Maurice Lewis-Briggs, a 6-foot-8 senior forward who scored 29 points in the first meeting, finished the second with 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting. Josh Martin needed 18 shots to scored 18 points.
“Mathis was terrific tonight,” Lombardi said. “He’s been slumping a little bit, and a big part of our job as coaches is to try to get guys back on track with their confidence, and he got back on track tonight. I’m real happy with the way he performed, and we needed that.
“And Devante, he just controlled the whole game. I think he’s the best point guard in the league. I don’t know what other people do — they might score, they might do this or that — but for me the best point guard in the league is the guy who controls the game.”
Keita, Souberbielle and Chance have been the three main cogs in IUP’s success. Jeffers has had a lot to do with it in recent weeks. A 6-6 transfer from Division I Drake who entered the game averaging 8.2 points per game, he has averaged 12.0 in the last five.
“Jeremy has been making steady progress,” Lombardi said. “Some of it is that I didn’t do a very good job of coaching early on. Sometimes you can’t get caught up in making players what you want them to be; you have to figure out over time what they’re best at and let them be who they are. He’s our most improved player over the last two months. … He’s just gotten a lot of his rhythm back, and we’ve put him in situations where he can drive the ball more.”
“I feel like I can do better,” Jeffers said. “We’re really getting into the flow, and our chemistry is getting better, knowing where each other is going to be on the floor, and that’s really helped us out.”
With Jeffers in the lineup, IUP can put five players on the floor who are capable of breaking down a defense off the dribble to score at the rim or find an open teammate.
“We’ve gotten good at driving the ball, and we move the ball,” Lombardi said. “So we’re getting people off balance with penetration, and other people are finishing it off.”
IUP, seeded second in the PSAC West, drew a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Hawks play Tuesday in the quarterfinals against the winner of Saturday’s game between California (11-15, 6-10) and Mercyhurst (15-11, 11-5). The quarterfinal winners advance to the home of the highest remaining PSAC East seed for the final four. IUP has won three of the last four conference titles and is the defending champion.
“This journey has ended, and we’re just happy to start a new journey,” Lombardi said. “And it says a lot, for us to have the biggest turnover that we’ve ever had on our roster and just grind over the regular season and go 13-3 and be co-champions of the PSAC West. That’s a feat in itself. So we certainly did all I could expect in the regular season.”