The IUP men’s basketball team entered this season with championship expectations, and after finishing the regular season with a record-setting .960 winning percentage and a 27-1 record, the Crimson Hawks opened up the postseason on Wednesday at the KCAC, in a PSAC tournament quarterfinal matchup against California (Pa.).
In a hard-fought 40 minutes of action, as every time IUP and the Vulcans face off seems to be, Ethan Porterfield (junior) led the Hawks in the second half to secure an 85-76 victory, earning IUP a spot in the PSAC semifinals Saturday and the conference championship still in mind.
“We battled and we fought,” said IUP coach Joe Lombardi. “Sometimes the hardest game in the tournament can be the opening round.”
After defeating California, 80-77, in the regular-season finale on Saturday, Wednesday’s game marked the second matchup in just five days between the Hawks and the Vulcans, and the seventh meeting between the two since the start of last season. IUP has won all seven, and the Crimson Hawks have won 21 straight against California dating back to 2014.
“It’s been something in these last two years, it’s like a spell, like we have to play them,” said Shawndale Jones (graduate student). “We knew it was going to be a gritty game, but as long as we come together and do what we have to do, we knew we could take care of business.”
The Hawks were up 16-4 early on in Saturday’s matchup, but they were unable to get off to a similar start on Wednesday.
The Vulcans scored the first eight points while IUP struggled shooting the ball, starting the game 1-for-9 from the field.
“We were giving up some stuff on defense,” junior forward Ethan Porterfield said of the rough start. “We missed a lot of shots we don't usually miss, but we found a way to make up for all that eventually and it just all tied together.”
After going down 14-6 six minutes into the game, the Hawks responded with a 13-0 run to surge ahead, 19-14. The scoring started and finished with layups from Jones, and Dave Morris (senior) added five points in between.
Defensively, IUP held California to 0-for-6 shooting and forced two turnovers during that span, and the Vulcans never led again.
The teams traded points the rest of the half, and the Hawks narrowly led 33-32 entering the halftime break. IUP shot 11-for-27 (40.7 percent), and the Vulcans shot one better, going 12-for-27 (44.4 percent) through the first 20 minutes.
Porterfield had just two points on 1-for-7 shooting to that point, but he certainly turned it around and stole the show offensively in the second half for the Hawks, scoring 16 points of 6-for-8 shooting.
“At halftime, I was kind of frustrated with myself,” said Porterfield. “I’m a big self-talker, so at halftime I started talking to myself saying, ‘You know you’re better than this’. I was telling everybody that I was going to make up for it in the second half. I came out, brought some energy and I feel like I did a good job with that.”
Porterfield set the tone for the remainder of the game early on in the second half, going on a personal 8-0 run in the first two minutes to lengthen the Hawks’ lead to 41-32.
Over the next 10 minutes, IUP’s lead fluctuated between six and 10 points as the teams continued to exchange buckets. It wasn’t until Jones made a layup with 8:03 left to play to give IUP a 60-49 lead that either team scored on consecutive possessions without the other responding.
California’s Keith Palek III answered with a 3-pointer to make it 60-52, but the Hawks then used a 10-3 run to put them up 15 points, 70-55, with 4:08 to play.
Trailing by a substantial margin late, California had no choice but to play the foul game in its comeback effort. IUP made six free throws down the stretch and kept the Vulcans at bay to walk out with the win, though it wasn’t easy.
“We just know it's going to be a dog fight every time,” said Porterfield on matching up with California. “The games are always going to have that energy and everybody brings out intensity.”
Jones led IUP in scoring and assists with 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting and five helpers. Thanks to his strong second half, Porterfield finished with 18 points, and Morris added 17 on an efficient shooting night (5-for-10).
Other than the top three scorers, a key component in the Hawks’ win was the contributions from pretty much every player who saw the floor, and having that is crucial this time of year.
Whether it was Tomiwa Sulaiman (sophomore) grabbing 11 rebounds, Jaylen Stewart (sophomore) making two 3-pointers, Dallis Dillard (sophomore) knocking down five clutch free throws late in the game, or K.J. Rhodes coming in and playing 11 quality minutes – his second-most since Dec. 30 – IUP showed how deep of a team it truly is.
“Every single player on this team is great and can do great things,” said Jones. “It's just what they could do in each situation and what situations coach puts them in. I feel like tonight was a great representative of how deep we are as a team, and everybody did a lot of good things.”
With the Vulcans out of the way, IUP will turn its focus to East Stroudsburg. The Warriors defeated West Chester, 85-72, on Wednesday, and the teams will face off for the second time this season in the PSAC semifinals Saturday at Shippensburg, the top remaining seed from the PSAC East and the host for championship weekend. IUP defeated East Stroudsburg, 67-53, on Jan. 28.
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