When IUP’s offense hit a wall in the second half Wednesday night, the Crimson Hawks leaned on their defense.
The IUP men’s basketball team defeated Bowie State, 76-55, in a non-conference game in their home opener at the KCAC.
While the Crimson Hawks did not have the best night offensively, it was their defense, led by Tomiwa Sulaiman (sophomore), that shined and propelled them to the victory.
“Defense wins championships at the end of the day,” said Sulaiman, who had 16 points, 12 rebounds and three steals. “When you have people that are putting their body on the line to get a stop, diving on the floor, we have to match that energy, and if we just out-hustle and out-compete teams, we'll always find a way to win.”
“He plays so hard, he plays with joy and passion,” said IUP head coach Joe Lombardi of Sulaiman. “That's contagious, and it's fun to watch.”
Sulaiman put his stamp on the victory with an energetic three-point play on a fast break with 4:54 to play in the game, followed by an emphatic put-back dunk with 3:39 left which gave IUP a 71-55 lead and made the crowd of 2,329 get on their feet to show their spirit.
“I like getting the crowd hyped,” said Sulaiman. “I'm trying to dunk it, (and) make not highlight plays, but power plays. Get blocks, get steals and get stops. That brings me joy and it brings my team joy.”
The 21-point difference in the final score may seem like it was a dominating effort for the No. 3-ranked Crimson Hawks, however they did experience some bumps in the road.
The Bulldogs scored the first five points of the game, and IUP missed three of its first four shots.
“In some ways you expect a slow start,” said Lombardi. “There's always a lot of opening night jitters.”
The quick deficit didn’t last long though, as the Hawks countered Bowie state’s initial 5-0 run with an 18-4 run of their own.
“I like the way they responded,” said Lombardi. “We're constantly talking about what a championship team is, and how they respond to certain situations. Sometimes you're going to get a bad whistle with some calls or the other team just comes out and rises up to the occasion because they're playing the number 2/3 team in the country.”
The first half was relatively controlled by IUP, thanks to the defense. The Hawks forced eight turnovers, held the Bulldogs to just 36.7 percent shooting and only gave up 30 points to a Bowie State team, who had scored 94 and 100 in its first two games, respectively.
“We’ve taken pride in our defense over the years,” said Lombardi. “I think we could be really good at it this year.”
“Defense is our pillar,” said Dave Morris (redshirt senior), playing in his first game as point guard after averaging 12.2 points last season as an off-ball guard. “We take it personal because we know if we play defense like we played tonight, our offense will take care of itself.”
IUP led 40-30 at half, and it could have been worse for the visiting Bulldogs had they not mounted an 8-2 run to close out the opening 20 minutes. A string of turnovers and poor 3-point shooting by IUP allowed Bowie State to stay in the game. The Hawks finished with 16 turnovers on the night - some which were simply unforced errors – and went 6-for-21 on 3-point field goal attempts.
“We were sloppy at times, and we got fatigued, which bothered us,” said Lombardi. “Bowie pushed the pace up and down and we were playing so hard on defense, so that played a big part of it.”
“It’s the beginning of the season. It’s common to miss of couple shots, but we’re going to control what we can control,” said Morris, who scored 12 points to go along with a team-high four assists. “That effort and stuff like that just goes to show what this team is. Shots are going to fall, but we can control our effort for sure.”
IUP shot 56 percent on 2-point attempts, grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, which contributed to 28 points in the paint, and scored 16 points in transition.
Bowie State stuck around for much of the second half, keeping the deficit between 12 and 15 points for most of it. While a 15-point lead may seem substantial, every time the Hawks began to pull away, the Bulldogs responded with a 3-pointer or a three-point play to keep the score within reach.
Bowie State’s best chance at making up the double-digit deficit came midway through the second half, when IUP went on a scoring drought of more than four minutes. Shawndale Jones (graduate student) drained a pair of free throws at the 13:15 mark to give IUP a 55-36 lead. Over the next 4:12, IUP had several empty possessions. The Crimson Hawks missed six shots, including four 3-pointers, to go with a turnover and a missed free throw.
That’s when IUP’s defense shined the brightest. Despite their offensive woes, the Crimson Hawks limited Bowie State to just eight points during the stretch to minimize the damage. IUP didn’t score again until the 9:03 mark, when Morris made a pair of free throws for a 57-44 lead.
“They're a hard working team, relentless on the boards, athletic and fast,” said Morris. “Kudos to them for giving us a challenge. We just have to keep taking that and learning. All these games are tests for us to keep winning.”
IUP may not have played its prettiest game, but the Hawks are still trending upwards. Whether it was first-game jitters, kinks to get out of their system or injuries, IUP basketball is yet to reach its full potential.
“Ethan [Porterfield]’s still not healthy, he's trying to get back on his feet after the surgery. Shawndale is not the player he’s going to be by the end of the season. David has to find his way after playing off-ball last year,” said Lombardi. “We're going to be a lot better on offense when some of those things settle in.”
Porterfield was an All-PSAC West First Team selection a season ago, and Jones – who missed all but seven games last year because of an ACL injury – averaged 25.2 points in games in which he played.
Jones led the team in scoring Wednesday with 20, and leads IUP in points per game (20.3) through the first three contests.
The Hawks (3-0) will return to the hard-wood Saturday, when they’ll travel to North Canton, Ohio, to take on non-conference foe Walsh (2-1).