The IUP Crimson Hawks started slow, but once they got rolling, they couldn’t be stopped.
Trailing by six points at halftime, IUP started a 28-6 run six minutes into the second half and cruised past West Virginia Wesleyan by 25 points, 75-52, in the season opener for both teams Friday night at the KCAC.
IUP outscored the Bobcats 50-21 in the second half after shooting only 28 percent and committing 11 turnovers in the first half against Wesleyan’s primary defense, a 1-3-1 zone. Puzzled in the first half, the Hawks figured out the defense in the second, shot 54.5 percent, cut their turnovers to six and forced 18 by Wesleyan.
That added up to a romp for a team that is replacing four starters from a 30-3 team that won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship.
“We came out very unsteady in the first half,” coach Joe Lombardi said. “Anytime you play against a unique defense that you don’t play against often, it takes a little longer to get a rhythm on offense. It’s a different type of defense, and I knew if we’d get to the second half we would be more comfortable attacking it.”
Armoni Foster scored a game-high 21 points, and three newcomers, all Division I transfers, scored in double figures: redshirt sophomore point guard Dave Morris with 15, 6-foot-8 senior forward Tommy Demogerontas with 11 and junior guard Shawndale Jones with 11.
“We’ve still got a lot of jelling to do, but we played well,” Foster, a redshirt sophomore guard from Meadville, said. “The second half we showed flashes of who we can be, an up-and-down team, a defensive team. The first half we just got a little sped up; it was the first game, though.”
The trio of newcomers — Demogerontas and Morris start and Jones comes off the bench — combined for 37 points 13 rebounds, eight assists and five steals. Morris struggled in the first half and early in the second, committing all six of his turnovers.
“The first half we started out real slow,” Jones said. “The zone, it was just a different feel for us, and we had some first-game jitters. The second half we started ball-faking, getting them to jump, moved the ball around and played IUP basketball.”
IUP allowed only 20 field goal attempts and two free throw attempts in the second half. Wesleyan finished with 27 turnovers, and IUP led the rebounding by 11, 35-24, grabbing 17 offensive boards and allowing only six. The Hawks also had 14 steals. They led in points off turnovers, 39-21, and second-chance points, 28-4.
Malik Miller, a senior guard from Farrell and the leading returning scorer from last season at 16.4 points per game, scored only seven points, but he had five assists and didn’t force the issue on an off night.
“I’m excited about his maturity,” Lombardi said, “and not getting frustrated when he’s not scoring, just playing within himself, and he wouldn’t have done that a year ago. When you’re trying to win a championship or just trying to be a good team, you need certain intangibles, and he showed that, and that’s a really important intangible.”
Chucky Humphries, starting at forward after coming off the bench last year, scored eight points and came up with four steals and three offensive boards. He turned in one of the highlights of the evening when he leaped over the scorers’ table in an effort to save a ball inbounds. He cleared the table on the fly and landed in the first row but couldn’t make the save.
“The biggest thing is we just scrapped,” Lombardi said. “Defensively, we made them uncomfortable in the second half. We just played half-court defense and impacted the game that way. That’s the biggest thing, and attacking the glass. Those were kind of separators, and the thing about those, they’re both kind of effort things.
“We won this game not with skill but effort. I hope we win some more games like that, and I hope some games our skill blossoms because we do have some skill.”
IUP’s defensive effort was better after Lombardi called off a full-court press the Hawks tried in the first half.
“The first half we tried to press and they had four dunks,” he said. “They had maybe 12 field goals, and four were dunks. We were pushing the envelope on that a little bit. But we are going to use it and we are going to be effective and we are going to get better at it … but we gave up for dunks in the first half.”
Overall, it was a successful night for a team incorporating a lot of new players into the program. More than 2,100 fans came to watch.
Jones, who transferred from NJIT, which averaged 649 in home attendance last season, said, “I loved the whole experience, everything about it. It was a totally different atmosphere.”
“It’s a blessing. It’s great,” Demogerontas, a transfer from Northern Illinois, which averaged 1,100, said. “I appreciate Coach Lombardi recruiting me to play here, and hopefully we’ll have a good year.”