The IUP Crimson Hawks came through — all of them.
IUP, which entered the season with one of the most talented starting lineups in 16 seasons under coach Joe Lombardi, was forced to retool when senior guard Shawndale Jones was lost to a torn ACL in the seventh game of the season.
It has been a tedious process, but the Hawks showed up Wednesday night in Erie to take on Mercyhurst in a rare matchup of top-10 PSAC teams with all available tools in its box.
IUP built an early 10-point lead, used an 11-0 run in the opening minutes of the second half to stretch a one-point edge to 12, weathered a Mercyhurst rally that tied the game and pulled out a 70-67 victory. IUP, ranked 10th in NCAA Division II, improved to 13-1 overall and 7-1 in the PSAC, and Mercyhurst, ranked seventh, fell to 12-2 and 7-2.
“This is a special win,” Lombardi said. “You have a few every year, you hope. But it’s not defining us. I don’t think a loss would have defined us. We just happened to be a little bit better on a given night and a couple more plays went our way, but it was gutsy.”
IUP’s Armoni Foster, a redshirt junior guard, was his usual self and finished with a team-high 20 points and seven assists. He left the game briefly with a calf cramp late when the outcome was hanging in the balance, but he returned in time to come up with a steal and convert a layup with 48 seconds left and make a free throw with 16.5 seconds remaining that gave IUP a 70-67 lead.
The Hawks took advantage of their 3-inch height advantage early, with 6-foot-8 forwards Ethan Porterfield and Tommy Demogerontas working the high-low game to score over the Lakers. Porterfield finished with 19 points despite playing with a stomach illness, and Demogerontas finished with eight points and four assists.
The big boost came from unlikely sources. IUP has been further hampered by an injury to reserve point guard Bryce Radford, a redshirt freshman who has missed the past four games and is out for another month. When Jones went down, Lombardi decided to move freshman Kyle Polce into the starting lineup and bring freshman Dallis Dillard off the redshirt list to provide some depth.
Polce was back in familiar territory, with his brother and Mercyhurst alumnus Conner in the stands, and he was flying all over the place. A constant pest on defense, the 6-2 Polce drilled consecutive 3-pointers late in the first half, which ended with IUP up five, 38-33.
Earlier in the first half, 6-6 freshman forward Tomiwa Sulaiman made an impact, scoring all eight of his points, with two buckets preceding Polce’s 3s. He also finished with six rebounds, including a pair on offense that he converted into buckets.
Dillard, playing in his seventh college game, faced intense pressure after starting guard Dave Morris fouled out with 1:20 left. Morris is the trigger man on inbounds plays, and Dillard took on the role when Mercyhurst ramped up its full-court pressure in a one-possession game. On one possession, he was forced to make an inbounds pass three times after swarming Lakers knocked the ball out of bounds.
He also ended up as the primary defender on Mercyhurst’s last-chance 3-point attempt. While Polce denied MiyKah McIntosh, who scored a game-high 25 points, Dillard defended Steve Cannaday’s 30-foot attempt that was well off the mark.
“We were out there with two freshmen,” Lombardi said. “I don’t know how much we planned on them playing … but those guys just filled in. We’re overcomers. We overcame that. Armoni overcame cramps. Ethan overcame throwing up. We just kept fighting. Tomiya came up big as a freshman. Kyle knocked down two 3s early and played great defense all night long. Dallis played exceptional defense at end so didn’t get a look.”
KEYS TO THE WIN: IUP had to win the rebounding battle and take care of the basketball. They Hawks did both, outrebounding the Lakers 33-26 and committing a season-low 11 turnovers while forcing Mercyhust into a season-high 16.
“That’s a big story in the game,” Lombardi said. “They create 20 turnovers a game, which is incredible for a team that doesn’t press a whole lot. We wanted to win the rebounding battle by six, and we won by seven, and we wanted to keep turnovers down. I didn’t put a specific number on that, but I knew there couldn’t gave been a lot of breakouts. They’re really good at getting steals and breakouts, and breakouts are like a pick-six, and I don’t know that they got a pick-six all night long.”
In fact, there was only one: McIntosh converted a three-point play that tied the game at 59 at the 7:20 mark.
IUP also started the second half getting to the free throw line after making no visits in teh first half. The Hawks went 7-for-8 from the line during an 11-0 run for a 50-38 lead less than four minutes into the second half.
BAD NUMBERS: IUP won despite shooting 5-for-23 from 3-point range. Foster, Morris and Demogerontas were a combined 1-for-18. Morris is shooting 37 percent from 3-point range, but Foster and Demogerontas are sitting under 30 percent.
Porterfield and Polce were each 2-for-2. Polce was 5-for-20 entering the game. Porterfield is shooting 52 percent from 3-point range (30-for-58) and 59 percent overall.
NEXT UP: Both teams suffered their only losses on the same day, Dec. 19, IUP to Shippensburg and Mercyhurst to East Stroudsburg. While the PSAC didn’t have a season last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercyhurst played an independent schedule, finished 11-0 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament, winning once and losing in the regional semifinals.
The rematch at IUP is on Jan. 29 at IUP.
IUP plays another experienced team, Gannon, on Saturday. Gannon went 10-4 last season, including a split in two games with IUP.
“Mercyhurst has a great team, and we’ll play again and maybe a third time,” Lombardi said. “It’s just exciting. I can’t recall having a top 10 matchup since I’ve been here. I didn’t play that up with the guys and never mentioned it, but it’s great for the league. And Mercyhurst had a season last year and went to the NCAAs. They’re the most veteran team in the league and the most experienced. Gannon had a season last year so they’re very advanced. We’re just happy to have these types of opportunities.”