The IUP Crimson Hawks tried something new Saturday night.
They dug a big hole.
IUP fell behind California by 18 points, 22-4, in the first 8ﾽ minutes of their highly anticipated Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference basketball game at the KCAC on Saturday night.
Facing by far its largest deficit of the season, seventh-ranked IUP climbed more than halfway out of the hole before halftime and then outscored California 58-36 in the second half with an efficient and entertaining performance that resulted in an 86-69 victory in front of more than 3,200 fans on Heritage Conference night.
“Sometimes we have trouble settling in, more so at home,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said, “and sometimes the other team rises up a lot in the first half. That combination can put you that much behind. I hope we don’t fall behind by 18 again.”
IUP has been a second-half team this season en route to a 15-1 record and a strong grip on first place in the PSAC West at 10-1. The latest win, its sixth straight, was definitely a tale of two halves.
In the first half, California (11-6, 7-4) started hot, took the big lead and cooled down when IUP began clawing its way out of the hole. The Hawks shot 30 percent (9-for-30) in the first half, went 3-for-14 from 3-point range, missed four free throws and trailed in the rebounding by six, but they managed to pull within five points, 33-28, by halftime.
In the second half, IUP shot 69.7 percent (23-for-33), went 6-for-11 from 3-point range and led the rebounding by seven. California, which was shooting over 60 percent while charging into the lead, cooled off considerably and shot 33.3 percent in the second half and 42.4 for the game. After the slow start, IUP outscored California 82-47.
“We couldn’t make shots, our transition defense wasn’t there. We just weren’t playing like us,” point guard Dave Morris said of the first half. “I’m happy we came together and fought like we usually do. And halftime was big for us. Coach didn’t get too riled up, he just told us to settle down and play our game.”
IUP began its comeback by getting stops on defense. California opened the game 9-for-14 with four 3-pointers but went 16-for-45 (.356) the rest of the way.
“We just came out and they were making a lot of shots and we weren’t making ours,” freshman forward Nathan Porterfield said. “We knew we just had to regroup. We knew it was a matter of time before we stuck our feet in the ground and started getting stops on defense.”
Porterfield became an emphasis on offense, too. The Hawks went to the 6-foot-8 freshman early, and once he scored inside, the offense opened up and IUP struck from everywhere. Porterfield scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half on a 3-pointer, a couple jump hooks, a turnaround jumper and a short jumper. He finished with seven rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots.
“Coach made that an emphasis,” he said. “He told me to make a play for myself or my teammates, and I feel like I did a good job making the plays I needed to make.”
All five starters scored in double figures. Malik Miller scored a game-high 22 points, with 15 coming in the second half. Armoni Foster and Morris joined Porterfield with 17. Chucky Humphries finished with 10 and took away a sure two for California in the first half with a blocked shot.
Even Morris blocked a shot. The Erie native, listed at 6-foot, slid down the lane to take on 6-4 Jermaine Hall Jr. on a baseline drive. Morris went up and pinned the ball against the backboard with both hands.
“What an incredible two-handed block,” Lombardi said. “That’s as good as anything we’ve seen in this building … and pretty explosive for a guy 5-10.”
Whatever his size, Morris finished with three assists, three steals and one cut above his left eye after getting fouled on a layup attempt. His block came during a 10-0 run when IUP took its first lead.
Morris started the run with another big play, hitting a 3-pointer and drawing a foul on California’s Brent Pegram. Humphries followed the four-point play with another 3 off Porterfield’s assist, Miller made a free throw, and Morris converted a layup for a 56-51 lead 7ﾽ minutes into the second half.
California stayed close for a couple more minutes before IUP pulled away with a 21-9 burst.
“When we first came out, I was almost shocked at the way they were shooting,” Porterfield said, “but we know this is our home floor and we have to defend it and play our best game. We went to the locker room and talked about it, and we knew we had come out and throw the first punch of the second half.”
IUP ended California’s four-game winning streak. Luke House, a 6-4 freshman, led the Vulcans with 19 points. Tim Smith Jr., also a freshman, had 17.
Leading scorers Brent Pegram and Zyan Collins finished with 13 points apiece, and both eventually fouled out. Pegram, averaging 20.7 points per game when the night began, played only four minutes in the first half due to foul trouble.
“Credit to Cal,” Lombardi said. “They came out and were really playing well. I’m not surprised. They have a lot of good, young players and a really good team. I thought they would cool down. I was hoping they would cool down. It was a combination of them cooling down and us playing better defense.”
IUP plays at Pitt Johnstown on Wednesday. Pitt Johnstown (15-3, 9-2) beat Slippery Rock on Saturday, 72-69, for coach Bob Rukavina’s 500th career win.
“We just go day by day, look to get better every day in practice,” Porterfield said. “We know what’s at stake and we have bull’s eyes on our back, and we know we have to come out and play our hardest.”