When the regular season came to a close, the IUP Crimson Hawks took a few minutes to have a little fun.
On Thursday afternoon, a day after throttling Slippery Rock, 69-55, in the regular-season finale on the road and claiming a fifth straight Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division title, the Crimson Hawks gathered for their usual film and weightlifting session.
Then they strolled onto the court at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blaring on the sound system, and each player and coach took his turn climbing a stepladder to snip the net off the rim of one of the baskets. Aside from the team, there were only a half-dozen people there to watch the traditional but makeshift celebration.
“We cut down the nets because I wanted my guys to experience the fruits of their labor,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “The first championship that lies in front of you every year is a regular-season championship. Some people value the conference championship more, but that’s winning three games in a tournament. The true side of a team’s success is trying to have the best record after a 16-game schedule.”
While IUP won the first four division titles outright, the Hawks shared this one with Gannon after both teams finished with 13-3 records. Both teams earned first-round byes in the playoffs, which began Saturday, and open the postseason on their home courts in the quarterfinals Tuesday. IUP (23-3) plays host to Mercyhurst (16-11), a 54-50 winner over California on Saturday. Gannon (18-8) plays host to Slippery Rock (19-9), a 68-65 winner over Seton Hill on Saturday, in the other quarterfinal involving PSAC West teams.
Tuesday’s winners advance to the home of the highest remaining seed in the PSAC East for the final four.
“To share that title with Gannon was a great accomplishment for our players, and I wanted them to enjoy the moment,” Lombardi said. “I worry sometimes that our players have such high expectations on the regional and national level that sometimes they don’t take the time to enjoy what they do during a conference season.”
IUP started the season 14-0 before losing to Gannon and California in back-to-back games in mid-January. The Hawks have since won nine of their last 10 games, the lone loss coming to Gannon a second time. They have two wins over Mercyhurst, 53-50 on the road and 74-66 at home.
“A bye is always good because you automatically win that game and get to the next round,” Lombardi said. “This time of year you don’t like to take a lot of time off. You always worry that their focus is going to wander and that they’ll get out of rhythm or that the hunger leaves them a little bit. But it’s given us a chance to step back and enjoy the success that we’ve had on the first journey that we’ve taken. And now that we’re taking another journey, we have to turn the page and create a new identity for ourselves over this next week.”
IUP has improved dramatically on offense over the last month, relying less on 3-point shooting and more on dribble penetration. As a result, the Hawks have scored on a lot of layups, some in the half court and some in transition. IUP is shooting 52.3 percent (228-for-436) from the floor and averaging 15.9 assists over the last eight games.
“That is a number that is very high,” Lombardi said, “and a lot of that has to do with our ability to get good shots and high-percentage shots. The guys pass the ball well, and when they do that they get easy shots for their teammates. What this team does better, 1 through 5, than any team I’ve ever had is the ability to pass and the ability to go off the dribble and make plays for themselves and other people.”
The Crimson Hawks also have established a comfort zone on the court. IUP lost six players from last year and opened this season with four new players in a regular rotation of eight that included returning starters and seniors Marcel Souberbielle and Mathis Keita and junior Devante Chance, a first-time starter at point guard. The newcomers included Jeremy Jeffers, a 6-foot-6 junior forward who transferred from Division I Drake, and Brandon Norfleet, a 6-4 sophomore guard who transferred from Division II Cheyney but had to sit out the first seven games.
All five players have the ability to penetrate to the basket and create their own shots or find open teammates. Souberbielle and Keita have combined to average 31.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and Chance averages 11.1 points and a team-high 4.5 assists. Keita also averages 3.8 assists.
Norfleet, the PSAC East Freshman of the Year last season, excels in the open court and taking the ball to the basket. Jeffers also has found a niche in recent weeks, scoring more around the basket after struggling to make shots from the perimeter. Norfleet averages 10.8 points and 3.1 assists per game, and Jeffers has averaged 12.0 points per game over the last six to go along with 4.4 rebounds.
“It took a while for Brandon, after missing the first seven games, to fit in,” Lombardi said, “and a lot of times it takes transfers half a year to find their place, and I think that was the case with Jeremy. It took them a while to buy into what we needed, and it took a while for me to get a better understanding of how they fit into this puzzle we’ve put together. The emergence of those two guys jelling with the rest of the team is probably the reason we’ve taken some strides in the past month.”
Regardless of what happens in the conference playoffs, IUP has likely assured itself a spot in the NCAA Atlantic Region tournament. The top eight teams in the regional rankings after conference tournaments earn NCAA berths, with automatic bids going to the PSAC and CIAA champions. The Mountain East Conference, formed with former teams from the West Virginia Conference, including three-time defending regional champion West Liberty, does not earn an automatic bid. West Liberty is ranked first in the region, followed by East Stroudsburg in second and IUP in third. The top seed serves as the tournament host.
“We’re very solidified as an NCAA tournament team,” Lombardi said. “The worst-case scenario, we’re going into Selection Sunday with only four losses, and the way the region stacks up, I’m not sure we’re going to move up or down from that third spot with the record of other teams in the region and their situations. That’s another opportunity for us and another journey for us to look forward to after the conference tournament. It’s nice for the coaches and players to know that we have another season after the PSAC championships, but that’s a luxury you don’t get often, and it’s a luxury these guys have earned over the last four months.”
IUP has won three of the last four conference championships and is on the brink of its sixth straight NCAA tournament berth. IUP has won 22 or more games in six straight seasons.
“This is a great program that every year rebuilds and every year does a great job,” Keita said. “That’s a credit to Coach Lombardi to always give everybody that winning mentality.”