The IUP Crimson Hawks have to play the waiting game, same as they waited Tuesday night for their shots to fall, their free throws to drop, their energy to surge and the momentum to shift.
Those things never happened in the second half, but IUP likely will get to play again after making an early exit from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference playoffs.
IUP lost to Mercyhurst, 67-56, in the quarterfinal round, making its earliest exit from the postseason tournament since the 2008-09 season. The Crimson Hawks now have to wait until Sunday night, when the NCAA announces the Division II tournament bracket, to find out which team they will play and where, and that game won’t come for 11 more days.
“We didn’t play well enough to deserve to win,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “At the end of the day Mercyhurst was more efficient than us and more productive on the offensive end. To their credit, they were able to execute and sustain offense throughout the game, and our downfall was that we weren’t able to convert on the offensive end effectively enough to take control of the game.”
IUP also suffered its third home loss of the season, its most in the last six seasons under Lombardi, who is in his eighth year.
“It’s shocking,” junior point guard Devante Chance said. “Losing at home in the playoffs, it’s a shocking feeling, and that’s the only way to put it.”
IUP (23-4), the second seed in the PSAC West, swept Mercyhurst in the two-game regular-season series, but in the playoffs, the Hawks struggled to make shots from anywhere.
They shot a season-low 37 percent from the field in their previous three losses and matched that figure last night, making a season-low 15 field goals on a season-low 40 attempts (.375), including 6-for-22 (.272) in the second half.
IUP was 2-for-14 from 3-point range, including 0-for-6 in the second half.
The struggle continued at the free throw line. IUP missed 11 of 35 free throw attempts, including 6 of 8 in one crucial stretch in the second half. That effort came only two weeks after burying the Lakers with 25-for-27 shooting from the line.
Mercyhurst (17-11), the third seed out of the PSAC West, shot 48 percent (23-for-48), including 8-for-15 from 3-point range, and made its last 11 free throws to finish 13-for-18. The Lakers also led the rebounding by nine, 32-23, gaining that margin with an 11-2 advantage down the stretch.
“They were certainly the better team tonight, the more energized team, the more enthusiastic team,” Lombardi said. “Sometimes your mental toughness gets exposed when stuff doesn’t go your way or the way you thought it was going to go, and you get discouraged. We got discouraged. We couldn’t make free throws in the second half. We couldn’t make open jump shots. They made a bank shot from the top of the key that was heavily contested, and we missed open ones. To their credit, they were 8-for-15, and that’s probably as good as they shot all year from 3, and we weren’t able to respond to that.”
IUP had a chance to take control of the game in the first half. The Hawks held an 11-point lead at 29-18 with 6:49 to play and the momentum swinging in their favor, but they missed their last six shots and committed three turnovers that allowed Mercyhurst to pull within one, 32-31, at halftime.
After leading by 11, IUP managed only 27 points on six field goals and 15 free throws the rest of the game, going 8? minutes in one stretch of the second half without a basket. During that stretch, IUP fell behind by five, 47-42, and then held Mercyhurst scoreless for 6? minutes but made only two free throws on eight attempts and still trailed by one, 47-46.
Mercyhurst then scored eight quick points to take a seven-point lead, 55-48, into the last three minutes. IUP pulled no closer than four after that.
“When we were down 11 in the first half we stayed in there,” Mercyhurst coach Gary Manchel said. “I thought we got lucky. The first time they made 25 of 27 free throws. This time they missed some free throws. If they make those, it gets to be a one-point game or a tied game and then who knows what happens. I still think IUP is the best team in the league … and we were just fortunate. I’m not ready to say we outplayed them. We were just fortunate to make some shots down the stretch and made our free throws in the second half and rebounded OK. One thing with IUP, they try to bang you up on the boards. To outrebound them and hold them to 27 percent in the second half gives us a shot to win.”
IUP was further hampered in the second half by the loss of leading scorer Marcel Souberbielle, who suffered a groin injury and did not play in the last 10 minutes.
“It’s really disappointing,” Souberbielle said. “I’m the type of person, even though we scored points when I went out, I would never want to leave my team like that in a situation like this. I’m really upset right now, but there’s nothing I could do.”
Souberbielle and Methis Keita led IUP with 15 points apiece. Chance scored 10.
Mercyhurst’s bench outscored its starters, 37-30. Jean Onana, a starter, scored 16, and Sean Beins and Andy Hoying combined for 25 off the bench on 10-for-14 shooting. Hoying also grabbed 10 rebounds.
“They made tough shots, and we missed easy shots,” Keita said. “It’s hard to beat them three times in a row, but I guess it wasn’t our night. We couldn’t make it happen. We couldn’t make the plays we needed to make. It’s playoff time, and that’s what you need to do. They rose up, and we didn’t play our best game.”
Mercyhurst advanced past the PSAC quarterfinals for the first time in its four seasons in the league. The Lakers play at East Stroudsburg (26-1), the top seed out of the PSAC East and the second-ranked team in the country, in the semifinals Saturday. Mercyhurst lost at East Stroudsburg, 60-54, on Dec. 21. Gannon (19-8) plays West Chester (19-8) in the other semifinal at East Stroudsburg. The winners play for the PSAC title Sunday afternoon.
“Actually it’s perfect because we’re such a half-court, deliberate team, and they’re such a pressing team,” Manchel said of the matchup with the Warriors. “They’re heavily favored, they lost one game, but I wouldn’t count this team out. There’s nothing I wouldn’t say this team can’t do.”
IUP entered the playoffs ranked 10th in the country and third in the Atlantic Region. The top eight teams earn NCAA berths, and it’s unlikely IUP will fall far, if at all, in the rankings.
“Maybe we get in and maybe we don’t. We’ll see,” Lombardi said. “I never trust the computer. We’ll see what happens, and if we get the chance to play again, we’ll try to take a better approach to it.”