Like most coaches, Tom McConnell doesn’t like to look too far ahead.
Instead, the seventh-year IUP women’s basketball coach preaches a culture of “staying in the moment,” focusing on the here and now. So it comes as no surprise that McConnell and the first-place Crimson Hawks aren’t changing their approach this week as they tune up for arguably their most challenging week of the season.
“The thing that we try to do right here is we don’t look at it a week in advance, two weeks in advance. We try to talk about staying in the moment,” he said after the Crimson Hawks beat Slippery Rock to extend their school-record winning streak to 19 games Saturday.
With three weeks left in the regular season, IUP is ranked No. 5 in the nation and sits atop the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division at 21-1 overall and 16-0 in conference play. This week, the Crimson Hawks visit third-place California on Wednesday followed by a home showdown at the KCAC with second-place Gannon on Saturday.
Should IUP come away with a pair of victories, the Crimson Hawks will at worst clinch a share of the PSAC West. And as long as Hawks win one of their last four regular-season games, they will secure the division title outright and be in line to host PSAC championship weekend.
Of course, McConnell isn’t looking that far ahead.
“We have a saying that hangs in our locker room: See a little, you see a lot. See a lot, you see nothing,” he said. “And so we just try to see a little. And that little right now is Monday, Tuesday. OK, who do we play next? What do they do? What do we have to get ready for? Where do we have to grow as a team?
“So let’s just see what’s right in front of us and not look down the road at things we can’t control. We just want to see that little bit right in front of us.”
That little bit is a California (16-6, 10-6) team that has been a thorn in IUP’s side. McConnell is 6-11 versus the Vulcans, the only PSAC team with a winning record against him.
Even though the Vulcans have had an up-and-down season, the Crimson Hawks surely know not to expect an easy game Wednesday. Over the past five seasons, California has ended three IUP winning streaks of 13 or more games.
Three weeks ago, IUP won the first meeting this season by 15 points. But it wasn’t as easy as the final score may suggest. IUP had more turnovers than field goals in the first half that night, and the game wasn’t decided until the fourth quarter.
That was just one in the midst of a stretch of turnover-filled games in January for IUP, but the Crimson Hawks have cleaned up their game since then.
Over the past four games, they’re averaging 17.8 assists compared to 11.8 turnovers per game, and if they can continue that kind of offensive efficiency against California on Wednesday, they could sweep the Vulcans in the regular season for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
“We’re getting a little more confident with the basketball,” McConnell said. “We’re emphasizing it. The players are making better decisions is probably what it comes down to. More than it being like a physical attribute, it comes down to decision making, and I think as the season goes on, our decision making continues to improve and get better. We’re finding the open man.”