Saturday, January 24, 2015

Smith Saves Season, Knights Eke By Seton Hill

Girbran Smith's three-pointer with 16 seconds left today didn't just win the game at Seton Hill, 53-51. I think his shot saved Gannon's season. There's no way GU could feel confident traveling to Slippery Rock Wednesday after dropping three straight to PSAC also-rans Pitt-Johnstown, Cal, and Seton Hill.

I could only watch the live stats this afternoon (no video or audio access and who really wants to ever go to Greensburg in January), and what a strange feeling it was to see a seemingly insurmountable 48-40 lead disappear as the Knights went scoreless for 4+ minutes. After Griffin David Windsor hit a three to tie the game at 48 then another trey to give his team a 51-50 lead with 35 seconds left, I figured Gannon was dead. Not that I don't have confidence in this team; you just would have to bet the under if the line is 1 on most offensive possessions. But -- hallelujah! -- Smith hit his shot and Windsor missed just before the final horn to move the Knights to 11-3, tied for the best record in the league.

Smith isn't the only hero today. Adam Blazek was 1-for-5 in the first half but went 5-for-10 in the second half, including three threes, to keep the Knights in the game. Blazek played his normal 40 minutes but committed an abnormal 5 turnovers. I'm curious why Blazek has been shifted back to point and Marcus Jones relegated to the bench. Jones barely played vs. Cal and didn't see action in the first half at SHU. He ended up with 17 minutes of play in the second half, registering 4 assists, 3 turnovers, and 0 points. Let's see if he's back in the rotation at the Rock next week.

Other heroes are everyone for Gannon who grabbed a rebound. The Knights were outshot from the field (44% to 38% -- blech), but corralled 16 offensive rebounds to SHU's 2. That gave Gannon a massive 39-20 advantage on the boards and a 13-4 margin in second chance points. And that's your ballgame. It is kind of frightening though that Gannon can play such incredible defense and murder people on the glass, yet come within a whisker of losing the game. What's even stranger is this seems to have happened once if not twice every week this season.

Hopefully this game gives momentum back to Gannon and the Knights will finish strong just like they did a season ago. And hopefully Girbran Smith gets an open look the next time the game -- and season -- are on the line.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Knights At Their Worst, Lose Grip On First

I won't say much about Gannon's gutwrenching 63-58 loss at home to California (Pa.) for a few reasons. First, there's a quick GLIAC-like turnaround with the Knights playing at Seton Hill Saturday afternoon. Also, I only saw the second half and overtime via video feed because my daughter's third and fourth grade girls basketball team had practice from 7-8 Thursday. I felt like I was re-watching the season-opening games at the WACO Classic at Glenville State (W. Va.) where the Knights struggled to break 50 each game.

But I also don't need to blah blah blah on and on because Golden89 was dead on -- unlike Gannon's offense which sputtered to 26% shooting chart in the second half -- with his comment: "What a killer loss. You can stub your toe once in the combo of games at Millersville, at UPJ, and home against Cal. Losing two is tough, but recoverable. Losing all three is an absolute killer. It just can't happen. You have to take care of business in the winnable games when you have only three of the remaining ten games left at home. No, I'm not giving up. But this is a damaging loss."

Gannon is now tied for second in the PSAC West with IUP and trails Mercyhurst by a half game. After a 6-0 December, the Knights are a pedestrian 3-3 in January and end the month at Slippery Rock and hosting the red-hot Lakers. Gannon needs to make adjustments on offense, or they will lose a grip on not just first place but this entire season.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why Running Up The Score Is Wrong. Always.

You might have heard about the California high school game where one girls basketball team beat the other 161-2. I don’t know all the details of this contest, but the coach was wrong directing his team to win by such a ridiculous margin. This subject is near-and-dear to me because I played basketball competitively from fourth grade through college and have coached youth athletics for the past 20 years. I’ve been on both sides of several lopsided games during that timeframe and have seen the harm caused by running up the score.

Contrary to popular belief, these annihilations don’t help the winning team learn competitiveness. I’ve seen that it only teaches them bad habits and arrogance. Also contrary to popular belief, winning and playing to your full potential are only part of what kids can learn through athletics. Sports are also an opportunity to develop attributes like sportsmanship, compassion, and encouragement.

I recall years ago a high school girls soccer team in Erie that was dominant and twice a year had to play a team in their league that couldn’t compete with them. So the coach of the excellent team proposed to the coach of the other team they play for a half then combine teams for the second half. That way all the girls learned sportsmanship and compassion, and the losing team was encouraged playing with (not against) more skilled players.

When coaches don’t show compassion to their opponent and run up the score, they can really damage the other kids. The 161-2 score could have caused a girl on the other team to quit the team to avoid another public humiliation. Or it could have caused someone to tell her she’s no good and should quit.

Sports mirrors life. When we are in a situation where our actions may humiliate someone, we should change our actions. When we have the opportunity to show someone compassion, we should show compassion.

Earlier this season, the Hiram women’s basketball team gave up a competitive advantage by moving its season opener up a few weeks and giving up a home game – and an uncontested layup to start the game – to show compassion to an ill opponent. (See story and video here.)

What was the final score of that game? It doesn’t matter. We need to use athletics to lift kids up, not humiliate them. Always.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Missing Shots, Making Grades

Gannon shot a paltry 36.5% from the field tonight -- missing several from close range -- during a frustrating and disappointing 65-57 loss at Pitt-Johnstown this evening. But today wasn't all bad news. No, I'm not talking about Slippery Rock's stunning 86-84 double overtime loss at now 5-10 Seton Hill during which 5 SHU players logged 40+ minutes of playing time.

The good news is the university announced today that the Gannon men's basketball team recorded an impressive 3.064 team GPA during the fall semester. As I told GU SSID (Super Sports Information Director) Dan Teliski today, I'm proud to be a supporter of a program that cares about academics, teaches kids a strong work ethic, and doesn't spoil the kids.

Do I wish the 6-for-21 (Gannon) and 9-for-16 (UPJ) shooting charts on threes were reversed tonight? Yes. Am I happy that Gannon's free throw shooting was 5-of-6 while the Mountain Cats hit 18-of-19? Nope. And of course I wish UPJ's A.J. Leahey would have not torched Gannon for 27 points (7-of-11 on threes) and the Knights wouldn't have turned the ball over after consecutive steals gave them a possession with less than a minute to go and trailing by only 3.

But all those stats I rattled off will have an impact only on the PSAC standings and 2014-15 season. Classwork and the habits that go along with earning good grades earn wins in the game of life.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

More Better Everything*

I apologize to my former English instructors at every level of education, but "more better everything*" is the most accurate description I can give of Gannon's 66-48 beat down of Edinboro Saturday night at the Hammermill Center. (I will explain the asterisk later.) Gannon clearly had the better game plan, the better starting five, the better bench, better rebounding (a 50-29 advantage), and the better unit overall not just when you match up individual talent but also in terms of cohesive play.

The Knights rarely gave up an uncontested basket, but the Boro allowed several, most notably to Gannon reserves late in the first half when the Knights bolted to a 12-point lead. One of the many contrasts in team play came midway through the second half. Edinboro had just hit a three to cut the Gannon lead to 8, and A'Darius Porter was trapped between the left block and the baseline. Marcus Jones smartly cut from the right wing to the right block, where he finished a wide open layup. On the ensuing possession an Edinboro big man was in a nearly identical position, but instead of hitting a teammate for an easy bucket, the Knights executed on their defensive rotations and Blazek deflected the pass out of bounds over the baseline. Edinboro eventually missed a three on that possession, giving the Knights the opportunity to stretch the lead further.

Offensively, Gannon was relaxed all evening despite a 1-for-9 start. They knew if they worked the ball from side-to-side, the Boro defense would eventually break down, resulting in an open perimeter look or opportunity in the post. And if the Knights missed, no big deal. GU scooped up 14 offensive rebounds on the night.

And from an attitude perspective, there was no comparison between the two clubs. Gannon always plays with fierce intensity no matter the score or who has the momentum. The Scots started off high -- 5 quick points got everyone wearing red and black fired up. But as Gannon exerted its will, Edinboro lost all its energy. Coach Pat Cleary frequently exhorted his players with a simple direction: "Run!" When leading scorer Henri Wade-Chapman (20.6 ppg) missed a wild layup late -- he was an abysmal 2-for-17 on the night -- he stood on the baseline for a couple moments before jogging back on defense. Look at the Gannon roster and tell me which player you think would do that. I'd say "none of the above."

The Knights have won 9-of-10 and face big tests next week at Pitt-Johnstown and vs. Cal, who just had a 4-game win streak snapped Saturday vs. IUP. The Knights have a chance for a special season. The Scots do not.

Now about the asterisk: I think the only advantage Edinboro has over Gannon is freshman Jaymon Mason. Give the smooth-shooting lefty the PSAC Freshman of the Year award right now. I haven't seen a player of his ability since, well, Jaymon's father Tyrone Mason laced up his sneakers at Edinboro in the mid-90s. Mason had 21 points and 0 turnovers against a ballhawking Gannon defense. At this pace, he will be one of the all-time great Fighting Scots.

Other observations from the local rivalry:
* I am officially old. I interviewed Tyrone Mason for my SportsLook magazine and now his son is at the college level. And I played against Cliff Beck when he was at Blessed Sacrament (I'm a proud Sacred Heart grad), and his son is on the EUP roster as well. I'm now a full generation away from being a has-been.

* Qunn Lee Yaw isn't just a backup forward for Edinboro; he's also the designated yeller. A couple times during the game, the coaches called out a set then turned to Lee Yaw to ask him to lend his booming voice to the cause.

* Stat shot for you: Gannon held Edinboro 31 points below its scoring average of 79.0 ppg. The Scots outrebound opponents by +6 per game, but they were -21 vs. GU. The Fighting Scots are now 7-1 on weekdays and 0-7 in weekend games.

* Faithful Gannon fan Everett Wensel is also a fanatic of the New England Patriots, whose playoff game was held the same time as the Gannon/Edinboro douleheader Saturday. So Everett watched the Lady Knights finally beat Edinboro, ran down the Hammermill steps to a TV in the cafeteria (see photo), then after the Pats' win went back to cheering for the men's team. Tremendous!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Closest Blowout Ever

I'm assuming that only diehard Gannon fans read this site, so you already know that the Knights took down PSAC East-leading Kutztown Wednesday night at the Hammermill Center, 76-61. But if you didn't know the final outcome and I shared only these stats from the game, tell me if you thought the Knights got a W or an L:
* Gannon gave up a 10-0 run to open the game
* Late in the first half, with four starters on the bench with foul trouble, Gannon gave up another 10-0 run
* KU guard Tynell Fortune lit up the Knights for 25 points, 10 above his average
* KU small forward Tyler Brooks crossed over his defender repeatedly, leading to 15 points
* Gannon's Raphell Thomas-Edwards played only half the game and was limited by a heavily bandaged right hand
* Starting point guard Adam Holm-Weber was scoreless on the evening
* A'Darius Porter was 2-for-7 from the field, having a couple of his shots blocked and another miss so far wide left, I thought I was watching a Florida State/Miami football game on ESPN Classic

Can you believe that's part of the recipe for a 15-point victory? The game was tight until the final minutes when Gannon caught fire from the field and broke open a very entertaining game.

The difference in the game was simply Gannon's defensive intensity in the second half. In the opening period, Kutztown hit 50% of its field goals and scored 34 points. That's not a ton, but by John Reilly's standards it was too many. Talking with my brother at halftime, I noted that Kutztown looked comfortable playing against Gannon's D. They moved the ball side-to-side, beat guys off the dribble, and hit shots from a variety of angles. Bob Dukiet, who imbued his defensive philosophy upon Reilly, absolutely detested when opponents would get comfortable and would let his team know about it if he sensed one iota of comfort.

Gannon frustrated Kutztown so badly, two of their players nearly came to blows during a time out. Fortune and Anthony Selby had to be separated by their coaches after exchanging words at close range. Coach Bernie Driscoll spent the majority of the full timeout calming down Selby away from the huddle before allowing him to sit on the bench with his teammates.

I wasn't surprised to read in the paper today Girbran Smith's quote: "We had a bad start, but coach gave us a good talk and we focused in during the second half." In the first 18 minutes of the second half, Gannon had KU ballhandlers on their heels and allowed only 19 points. I couldn't believe when I looked at the scoreboard with 2:30 to go and Gannon was up 16.

Let's hope we all have the same feeling Saturday night vs. Edinboro.

Other observations related to the Golden Knights and Golden Bears:
* I heard this great story after the game. One of the officials arrived at the Hammermill right after tip-off because he was behind that 18-car pileup on I-80 Wednesday. To make sure he didn't miss any more of the game than he had to, the official pulled up in front of the Hammermill, gave his keys to a ticket taker, and asked her to park his vehicle. Officials get a lot of boos, but this gentleman deserves credit for his commitment to his profession.

* Tynell Fortune had a monster game -- 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting -- but his night could have been bigger. First, the 88% foul shooter inexplicably missed 5 free throws. Second, coach Driscoll subbed out Fortune with just under 4 minutes to play, and he rotted on the bench as Gannon pulled away. That move made no sense to me.

* I know this is a little thing, but little things are important. Tony Boykins played only 9 minutes which is typical for the junior transfer. I'm sure if you asked him, he'd feel he should play more. But the guy isn't sulking or playing selfishly. On one of his first possessions of the game, he swung the ball to Adam Holm-Weber on the right wing, set a back screen for Smith, and pointed to his back with his right thumb, imploring Holm-Weber to chuck a skip pass to Smith. That's what happened and Smith drained the wide open three.

* I'm an old man now, so I usually don't enjoy when teammates script fancy pre-game handshakes. But seeing Brit Thomas-Edwards drop to one knee and be knighted by Rich Austin during the introductions made me laugh. Kudos for creativity.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

And Then Along Came Jones

Photo courtesy Joe Mattis and Gannon University
Last year the emergence of Girbran Smith elevated Gannon from a sluggish 6-7 start to the PSAC West title and an NCAA tournament berth. Could freshman Marcus Jones be this year's Girbran Smith? After a typical Jones stat line during Saturday's 66-61 overtime loss at Millersville -- 13 minutes, 0 points -- the backup freshman point guard was averaging less than a point a game and the Knights were a pedestrian 8-5.

But Jones was the spark in Sunday's 62-50 victory at Shippensburg, hitting for 14 points in 28 minutes of action as GU moved to 8-1 in PSAC play. Jones hit all three of his field goal attempts and went 8-of-9 at the line, leading a 26-4 advantage in bench points. We couldn't watch the game -- I can't wait for streaming video technology to arrive in central and eastern Pennsylvania -- but I'm sure Jones created every scoring opportunity at full speed.

On New Year's Day during lunch, I bumped into two longtime Gannon fans at the Pizza Hut near West 12th and Peninsula Drive. They were happy with the consistent production of Gannon's seniors but raved the most about Jones. I thought to myself that was quite a bit of praise for a kid who only scored 10 points during the first semester, but I couldn't disagree. Jones is a solid ballhandler, able to deal with pressure, move the ball side-to-side, and occasionally drive by his man. But defense is where he most impresses me. When many guards are asked to pressure the ball, they are likely get beat off the dribble ... but not Jones. He'll take one step back to stop the penetration then jump right back into the opposing point guard's chest. I haven't seen on-ball defense this good since lighting quick Roland Shannonhouse sparked Gannon to two deep NCAA runs in the late 1980s.

Earlier this season when Gannon struggled mightily on offense with Smith in foul trouble, fans looked to Adam Blazek to provide all the offense. Maybe Jones can be that X factor that makes Gannon great on both ends of the floor.

Other thoughts from this weekend:
* If you don't understand the "And Then Along Came Jones" reference in the headline, you aren't old enough to have season tickets in the plush seats. And you need to listen to more of The Coasters and less of this made-for-marketing tripe that passes for music today.

* Does anybody know why Raphell Thomas-Edwards played only 5 minutes Saturday? He returned for 28 minutes vs. Ship, so it's not like he broke his collarbone or anything like that.

* Gannon still has the best record in the PSAC West at 8-1, but IUP is creeping closer at 6-2 after a perfect weekend. The Crimson Hawks won handily at Stroud (78-63) and at West Chester (84-65). Taking bad losses were 6-2 Slippery Rock at Mansfield (82-72) and 6-3 Mercyhurst who scored just 16 points in the first half and shot 27% for the game in a 53-43 loss at Kutztown.

* The Bears are now 7-2 in the PSAC East -- should be quite a showdown Wednesday night at the Hammermill. KU started the season 0-2 -- just like our Golden Knights -- and have won 10-of-13 since. Two of those losses were nailbiters vs. Slippery Rock and West Chester.