The IUP women’s basketball program held its sixth annual Education Day on Wednesday at KCAC.

In a sense, this team gets an education every day it takes the court for practices and games.

The Crimson Hawks are in process of replacing the core group of players that led them to consecutive appearances in the national semifinals. So every day is pretty much a learning experience for the entire team, and the coaching staff, too.

“I enjoy this team. I respect this team. I love coaching this team,” coach Tom McConnell said. “It’s obviously way different than last year because we were really, really experienced, and we were a strong ball handling team, and so with that being said, we’re trying to get our team better in areas where they need to grow, kind of like coming out at game time and trying to hide some of our deficiencies and accentuate the things this group does well. It can be challenging at times — exciting, but challenging at times. I really love coaching this team, and I respect this group. They’re a great group.”

More than 1,200 students from schools through the region packed the south end of the arena and made up a crowd of 2,207, a record for an IUP women’s basketball home game, and they saw the Hawks easily dispatch Pitt Bradford, as expected, by 55 points, 87-32. Afterward, Mad Science of Pittsburgh took the court to perform a series of fun experiments for the children, who ranged in age from elementary through high school. 

“This is one of my favorite days of the year because today we had more than 1,200 school children from the area here to watch a basketball game,” McConnell said. “For some I think it might be their first time on a college campus. For us, it’s bigger than just a basketball game. Mad Science was here today, and our education department has partnered with us and does a phenomenal job of attracting young students to our campus for this day. I always tell the story my sister tells about her daughter when she was in sixth grade and made a field trip to a university, and she came home at the end of the day and said, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ And she did six years later.”

“So it’s bigger than just a basketball game. I tell the team all the time that I hope that somebody watches you or watches the team play and is inspired by what you do and it motivates them to go back and do whatever they do with passion the way they saw you do it.”

The players love it, too. Who wouldn’t enjoy have a thousand or so children cheering every time you make a basket and screaming for every giveaway and dancing every time they appear on the giant video screen during timeouts at Ed Fry Arena?

“I love Education Day,” sophomore guard Rajah Fink said. “The kids are so funny. They’re screaming, and they’re like, ‘I love your hair!’ And I’m like, ‘Thank you! It’s nice to watch the kids and have them get to know us. When I was a kid I would have loved this.”

Fink is learning. A member of last year’s promising freshman class, the 5-foot-10 guard has seen her most playing time in the past two games. On Wednesday, she scored a career-high 16 points on 8-for-12 shooting, mostly on layups, including a burst into the lane and crossover, behind-the-back finish at the rim.

Asked is she had a favorite moment form the game, Fink smiled broadly and said, “My favorite move was across and behind the back and then just bullying in.”

Mikayla Lovelace liked it, too. Another member of the emerging sophomore class, the 5-9 Lovelace, a Leechburg product, began making her mark last week, scoring 17 points in a loss to Glenville State (W.Va.). On Wednesday, she struggled from the field, converting only 1 of 7 shots, but she raked in 10 rebounds, handed out seven assists and committed only one turnover. She has taken the backup spot behind freshman point guard Maria Cerro.

“Last year’s experience, watching how well the team played together, I just want to try to execute that when I do get on the court,” Lovelace said. “I think I’m doing OK. I’m still growing as a player and figuring out how I fit in with the team. We’re all still trying to figure out how each other plays and how we work best together.”

“We’re relying on them,” McConnell said of the sophomores. “They have good work ethics, good attitudes, and they’re hungry and want it. This is their opportunity, and both looking forward to the challenge.”

Those performances Wednesday, though, came against Pitt Bradford — not Pitt Johnstown or any other member of the rugged Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. But you have to start somewhere, and this team still appears to be finding its chemistry with each other while McConnell adjusts his rotations.

Delaware transfer Justina Mascaro (13.3 points per game) and senior guards Lexie Griggs (12.3) and Natalie Myers (14.8) are the Hawks’ go-to players, and Maura D’Anna is the starter in the low post. Fink and Lovelace make up the rotation off the bench along with redshirt junior Courtney Alexander.

On the downside, IUP lost one of its emerging sophomores. Teirra Preston, a 6-foot forward, suffered a torn ACL in practice earlier this week. Preston began emerging during last year’s postseason run and this year earned a spot as the first post player off the bench. Now the Hawks are going to be thin there, especially while D’Anna finds her form while she returns from knee surgery that cost her most of last season.

“We’re getting better. We’re a work in progress,” McConnell said. “Losing Teirra kind of changed our rotations a little bit. We might find ourselves going smaller at times and playing a different way than maybe we would have with Teirra in the lineup because she’s a big presence and a tough player. I just talked to our team about rising to the challenge and people stepping up and making plays.”

The Hawks start taking their biggest tests this weekend as the middle part of a big tripleheader, which starts next door at noon at Miller Stadium for IUP’s football game against Shepherd (W.Va.) in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs and extends to the KCAC for a pair of basketball games against Bloomsburg, with the women tipping off at 1 p.m. — or pretty close to halftime of the football game — and the men playing at 3, which might be close to the finish. Both teams play host to East Stroudsburg the following afternoon.

“There are two good teams coming in this weekend,” McConnell said. “It’s PSAC basketball so you know it will be hard-fought and competitive. Last year’s senior class will be back on campus and we’re going to celebrate the unveiling of the banner, and last year’s team is going to receive their rings for going to the Final Four. So I’m hoping maybe some people can sneak out from the football game and maybe catch us for a few minutes. ”