Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Knights Thrive Under Pressure, Rock Crumbles

I'm not much of a music guy -- I'm embarrassed to say this might be my all-time favorite tune -- but one song that's been stuck in my head since my youth is "Pressure" by Billy Joel. It's applicable every basketball season this time of year. For both Slippery Rock and Gannon, we learned yesterday the answer to the question "How you going to deal with pressure?" as the Knights played their best game of the year and smothered the Rock, 75-63.

From the get-go, both teams exhibited extreme intensity in a playoff-like atmosphere. I love how Darrell Blanton went right at 6-foot-10 Luiz Santos and then preseason All-American Gerald Brooks, scoring 11 points in the first 8 minutes of the game. The Knights were blown out early when they played at Slippery Rock Jan. 30, but Blanton sent a message early on that this game Gannon was going to throw the first punch.

That attitude was evident on both ends of the floor. We've become accustomed to the Gannon defense flustering its opponents, and that happened in spades Wednesday. But the Gannon offense was aggressive, too, attacking quickly instead of walking the ball down the floor. Some games the Knights seemed content to throw 20 passes in hopes of finding the perfect shot, only to be disappointed by a turnover. Against Slippery Rock, the strategy was to reduce turnovers by running quick hitters instead of a motion offense, then taking the first available good shot. John Reilly regularly shouted "Attack!" when the Knights secured the defensive rebound.

Of course I'm happy Gannon won, but what has me thrilled is the way they won. In a pressure-packed playoff atmosphere, they responded with their best game of the season against an athletic, red-hot ballclub. After the Mercyhurst debacle, I was concerned Gannon was limping into the postseason. What I saw vs. Slippery Rock was a team nobody in the PSAC tourney or Atlantic Region would look forward to facing.

Knight Knotes:
* I think Adam Blazek's arm is healed. Instead of frequently pump-faking shots like he's been doing since his return, Blazek pumped in 25 points on 6-of-11 shooting and 13-of-15 free throws. He also grabbed 9 rebounds in 38 minutes of play. And holy cow does that kid have an engine on defense.

* My brother follows many of the PSAC schools on Twitter and he showed my a Tweet during the game from @Rock_Athletics, the Slippery Rock athletics Twitter feed, that basically threw in the towel. It's since been taken down but the Tweet said basically, "Gannon leads Rock 56-35 with 12:00 left in the game; Rock fans can get ready to host playoff game Sat." They might have removed that post because I retweeted a portion of their comment and said, "Way to support your team."

* Had Gannon lost Wednesday and been forced to play a first-round PSAC playoff game, this song would have been featured in the headline of this post. I'm quite dismayed that music video has been viewed 28 million times.

* I'll try my best to keep track here of how the top 10 teams in the Atlantic Region have fared since the rankings were released Feb. 27. The team's overall Division II record is listed first followed by their in-region record as of Feb. 25. I still think to secure an NCAA bid the Knights will have to win a second straight home game vs. Slippery Rock (PSAC Quarters) and their PSAC semifinal game on a neutral court. The results on this list (not the win-loss record) are updated as of 11:55 PM on March 1.

West Liberty

W vs. UPJ, W vs. Wheeling Jesuit, W vs. #5 Fairmont
Winston-Salem State

W vs. Va. Union, L vs. Bowie St.
East Stroudsburg

W vs. Bloom
Indiana (Pa.)

W vs. Lock Haven
Fairmont State

W vs. Seton Hill, W vs. Alderson-Broaddus, L vs. #1 West Liberty

W vs. St. Aug's, W vs. Elizabeth City St., L vs. Bowie St.

L vs. Chowan
West Chester

L vs. Cheyney
Slippery Rock

L vs. Gannon, W vs. California
Johnson C. Smith

L vs. Elizabeth City St.

Updated 3/1/13 5:15 PM: The WVIAC and CIAA semifinals are tonight -- #1 West Liberty vs. Wheeling Jesuit and #5 Fairmont State vs. Alderson-Broaddus at the Charleston (WV) Civic Center, #2 Winston-Salem vs. Bowie State and #6 Livingstone vs. Elizabeth City State at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. I think we need to root for the favorites to ensure an unranked team doesn't steal their automatic conference bid.

Updated 3/1/13 8:34 PM: #5 Fairmont's 75-74 OT win over Alderson-Broaddus is great news for the Knights. A-B was #7 in the Feb. 20 regional rankings, one spot ahead of Gannon, and had won 4 straight before falling in the WVIAC semis. A-B tied the score on a field goal with 7 seconds left and had a free throw to give them the lead, but could not complete the three-point play. They then fouled with 1 second left and Fairmont made 1-of-2 foul shots. Awful, awful way to end your season.

Updated 3/1/13 8:55 PM: I think Livingstone getting to the CIAA finals with an easy win vs. Elizabeth City St. seals an at-large bid for the Blue Bears.

Updated 3/1/13 11:21 PM: The WVIAC final will pit #1 West Liberty vs. #5 Fairmont State. WLU knocked off Wheeling Jesuit tonight, 92-73.

Updated 3/1/13 11:52 PM: Uh oh. Bowie State (15-13) has sneaked into the CIAA finals after drubbing Atlantic #2 and conference #1 seed Winston-Salem, 83-66. If #6 Livingstone can't beat the Bulldogs in the CIAA championship Saturday, John Reilly's alma mater might steal Gannon's spot in the NCAA field.

Updated 3/2/13 5:34 PM: West Liberty will host the regional tournament this year. The Hilltoppers are now 30-1 after holding off Fairmont State in the WVIAC finals, 92-78.

Updated 3/2/13 8:41 PM: We will have a GU/SRU redo on Tue. Slippery Rock dominated California in their PSAC quarterfinal matchup tonight. The Rock scored 45 points in the first half and cruised from there.

Updated 3/2/13 10:33 PM: Bowie State just burst someone's bubble, and it's probably someone from the PSAC. The Bulldogs, now just 16-13, ran the table at the CIAA tournament, upsetting Atlantic Region #6 Livingstone tonight, 85-74. My prediction is that 7 teams in the region have likely sewn up bids to the NCAAs -- the top 6 in the current rankings (WLU, WSSU, Stroud, IUP, Fairmont, Livingstone) and Bowie. That leaves just one spot open for West Chester, Gannon, Slippery Rock, or a lower-seeded PSAC team who could steal the league's automatic bid. So I think Gannon's only paths to the tournament are win the PSAC automatic bid (duh) or get to the PSAC finals vs. IUP. Any other scenario would equal season over.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Knights Roll; Are They Ready To Rock?

Two parts to this post -- first a review, then a preview. Even though Gannon manhandled Lock Haven today, 82-69, to move to 21-6 on the season, this week was choppy at best. It started with a regional ranking of #8 which puts you on the NCAA tournament radar but just barely. Then there was that 44-36 travesty at Mercyhurst which featured a thundering dunk on the Knights that made ESPN's Plays Of The Day. Injury, meet insult. This afternoon's game featured a much improved offense that hit 62% of its field goals and actually surpassed Wednesday's full-game output in each half (43 points in the first half, 39 in the second).

Gannon wasn't the only one with a stress-inducing week. IUP lost a heartbreaker at Slippery Rock today, 70-69, giving them 2 losses in their last 3 games. Since Feb. 6, the seemingly untouchable Crimson Hawks are just 3-3. And did you see what's going on in the PSAC East? Stroudsburg was 17-1 in the conference and 19-3 overall 10 days ago, but after today's 83-76 home loss to West Chester, the Warriors have lost their grip on first place in the conference after three consecutive defeats (including an inexplicable double-digit loss to 7-18 Shippensburg). Who knows how far they'll tumble when the new regional rankings are unveiled Feb. 27.

So while us Gannon fans are licking our wounds because of back-to-back Wednesday night nightmares (@ Mercyhurst, vs. Edinboro), we need to keep perspective that lots of good teams are struggling now. February is a difficult time of year for many reasons. You've been with the same teammates and coaches for four straight months now, and there's bound to be friction. With all the hours you've spent in the gym, everybody had bumps, bruises, pains, and strains. And did I mention that by now every opponent knows your #1, #2, and #3 options and knows how to take them away from you? If you're around .500 or below, you're counting down the days to the end. If you're fortunate to be in the playoff hunt like Gannon, you're feeling the pressure of staying in the race.

Now the preview. Gannon SSID (Super Sports Information Director) Dan Teliski sets the stage for Wednesday's tilt vs. Slippery Rock:

If Gannon defeats Slippery Rock, the Golden Knights will grab the PSAC Western Division's second seed that comes with a PSAC Tournament first-round bye and a quarterfinal home game. Indiana (Pa.) would be the top seed and Slippery Rock would be the third seed. If Slippery Rock defeats Gannon, the Rock will capture the division's top seed. Indiana (Pa.) would fall to the second seed and Gannon would drop the third seed. The third seed will host a PSAC Tournament first-round contest, before hitting the road for any additional games.

In addition to that, if Gannon were to lose they'd host #6 Cal in a PSAC first round game. Even if GU would vaporize the Vulcans for the third time this season, that would earn them a PSAC Quarterfinal game at #2 IUP, no easy task. A loss there would result in a 21-8 in-region record, which I believe would burst their NCAA bubble.

Now put on your optimist's hat. Were Gannon to beat SRU, they would be 21-6 in the region with a PSAC Quarters home game looming, possibly a rematch with the Rock. Win that one, too, and even if you lose in the PSAC Semis you'd be 22-7 with some recent quality wins in your back pocket.

If I were John Reilly, I'd have my staff spending every waking moment for the next three days watching film of every Slippery Rock game this season and I'd ban players from watching any movies by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, "The Rock" with Sean Connery, or "School of Rock" with Jack Black. Yes, it's that important.

UPDATE 2/24/13: Here are the Atlantic Region top 10 results from last week. The team's record since the Feb. 20 regional ranking was released is in parentheses --

#1 West Liberty (2-0): W @ Pitt-Johnstown, W vs. #10 Wheeling Jesuit
#2 Winston-Salem (1-1): W vs. #9 Johnson C. Smith, L #6 @ Livingstone
#3 Fairmont State (1-1): L @ Seton Hill, W vs. Ohio Valley
#4 East Stroudsburg (0-2): L @ Millersville, L vs. West Chester
#5 Indiana (1-1): W vs. Edinboro, L @ Slippery Rock
#6 Livingstone (2-0): W vs. St. Augustine, W vs. #2 Winston-Salem
#7 Alderson-Broaddus (2-0): W at Davis & Elkins, W @ Glenville State
#8 Gannon (1-1): L @ Mercyhurst, W @ Lock Haven
#9 Johnson C. Smith (0-2): L vs. #2 Winston-Salem, L @ Shaw
#10 Wheeling Jesuit (1-1): W vs. Charleston 2OT, L @ #1 West Liberty

I wouldn't be shocked to see Slippery Rock make its debut on this list after a 2-0 week that included a thumping of Cal and a victory vs. #5 IUP.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

You Can't Say 'Ugly' Without Saying 'Ugh' First

I'm writing this blog entry 24 hours after Gannon's harrowing and humiliating 44-36 loss at crosstown rival Mercyhurst Wednesday. I could have written it last night but wanted to give myself some distance from the game first. You know how immediately after something happens people say, "That was the best ever!" or "That was the worst ever!", but a short time after you come to your senses and realize the event wasn't that extreme. As the Gannon/Mercyhurst game clock turned to zeros, in my head I was thinking, "That was the most disjointed basketball game I've seen in years -- and I coach a 1st and 2nd grade girls basketball team!" To make me even more distraught, I listened to a small portion of the Penguins game on the radio during my 17-minute commute home and they scored three goals during that span. I'd just seen a basketball game where it took my team like an hour to put three points on the scoreboard. Scratch my back with a hacksaw, and gouge out my eyes while you're at it!

So, with my wits about me a day later, I won't say that was the worst performance ever by a Gannon team, which would conflict with the comments of several fans in the waning moments of the game. I still recall Nov. 21, 2009 when I wrote the headline "Gannon loses to Urbana. At home. By 30." And don't forget about Feb. 22, 1996 when the Knights sleepwalked through a 105-63 stinker at Oakland (Mich.) after which Coach Dick Fox sent two players home because they were so awful both on and off the court. The Knights didn't get blown out Wednesday because their defense was special.

But I think you can say the second half of the Gannon/Mercyhurst game was arguably the poorest offensive showing in GU history. Check out these numbers compliments of my brother Rob: Gannon had 32 possessions in the second half. Here’s how each possession ended -- 

4 -- made field goals
3 -- free throw attempts (went 5/6 on those attempts)
8 -- shot attempts where Mercyhurst got the rebound

I’m sure it has happened before, say the Salem International women’s team, but it’s hard to believe that a team could have a half where 53% of the possessions ended in turnovers. Would they have been better off just dribbling past half court and heaving up 20-25 footers? 

My serious answer to that question is yes. Absolutely yes. They would have made at least 10% of 32 half-court heaves (maybe in this style), which would have resulted in 9 points. And let's say three more bombs resulted in long offensive rebounds which are converted into baskets for 6 points. That would have been two points better that what the Knights did in the game's final 20 minutes.

I wasn't freaking out like some fans were over the lack of subs during the second period. That unit was incredible on defense and John Reilly is a defense-first coach. He did the same thing -- sacrificed offense for defense -- in the 2009 NCAA tournament which resulted in a 67-65 win vs. Alderson-Broaddus. The gamble worked then, but it didn't vs. the Hurst.

I was surprised that Gannon didn't adjust its offensive sets vs. Mercyhurst's matchup zone. I know it's not a defense you see regularly, so coaches typically don't have a dozen plays to run to run against it. But it was clear the Knights were getting zero dribble penetration, no daylight off screens (the Lakers switched on everything), and player confidence sank while anxiety soared. Couldn't somebody have Googled this during at timeout and given it a shot? Could you put 4 players on the baseline for a couple possessions, let a quick guard go 1-on-1, and see what happened? Or get a player high post with two in the short corner/low post or overloaded on one side to see if there'd be an open look? I'm sure someone with more basketball knowledge could tell me why those are bad ideas, but they couldn't be much worse that the outcomes Gannon got with its strategy.

I'm really hoping Saturday vs. Lock Haven can be a get-well game for the offense. In Gannon's last five games against teams over .500, the Knights are averaging a measly 53.8 points per contest. For a five-game stretch in January, Gannon averaged 80.8 points per game (or 40.4 points per half). Right now that seems like a decade ago, not a month ago ... and we've got about a week to go before the playoffs begin to get back on track.

Quick Regional Update: Here's how some other teams ranked in the region fared Wednesday and Thursday --
#6 Livingstone: W vs. St. Augustine, 63-59
#7 Alderson-Broaddus: W at Davis & Elkins, 90-68
#8 Gannon: I don't want to talk about it anymore.
#9 Johnson C. Smith: L vs. Winston-Salem, 78-69
#10 Wheeling Jesuit: W vs. Charleston in 2OT, 86-80

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Knights Tenacious D Smothers Clari-yawn

Before we heap kudos on the Gannon defense after their resounding 68-47 win over Clarion Saturday afternoon, think for a moment what it would be like to be a Clarion fan this season. Transfer the passion you have for the Golden Knights to the Golden Eagles, and consider how you would (if you could) tolerate this season. Historically, Clarion has produced some talented teams and won their share of games under longtime coach Dr. Ron Righter. Included on their alumni list are John Calipari, Kwame Morton, Dan Chojnacki, Mike Sisinni, Terry Roseto, and Joe DeGregorio. But this year the team is 6-17 overall and 4-15 in the PSAC, just one game ahead of hapless Lock Haven. You'd have a better lot if you were an LHU fan; at least your team is on the rise from the ashes, not plummeting to earth like a meteor in Russia.

We like to complain on this blog when Gannon's offense is sluggish or why some talented players aren't seeing more action. How would you react when your team doesn't get out of the 40s against Gannon, Slippery Rock, and Mercyhurst? And think if your head would still be on your shoulders Gannon lost its season/home opener to non-scholarship Thiel and followed that up losing at home to non-scholarship LaRoche? As far as the players, we all saw the Golden Eagles for 40 minutes yesterday. Some Gannon Hoops fans who made the trip to Clarion have seen them in two games vs. the Knights. Do you see any players on that team you'd complain should be on the floor more? Do you see one player on that team who would even start for Gannon? The nicest thing you could say about CU's best players would be, "He's decent."

I was thinking if I ran a blog for Clarion this year what some of the headlines would be:
* Augh! We Lost To A Division III Team!
* Gaaaaaa! We Lost To A DIII Team Again!
* We're Still Better Than Lock Haven -- Barely
* Thank God Central Penn Is Still On The Schedule
* Dr. Righter Making Me Sick
* We Have The Most Boring Team In America
* I'm Going To Start Blogging About Curling Instead Of Clarion Basketball

Enough about the Golden Eagles -- let's turn to the Golden Knights, who cracked the 20-win plateau for the first time in 4 seasons. Gannon's defense pressured and suffocated Clarion from the outset, limiting the Eagles to 11 points in the first 14+ minutes of the game. It was interesting to see John Reilly's adjustments on defense for this game. Instead of pickup up at midcourt, the Knights often showed full-court pressure, sometimes denying the inbound pass. Instead of "showing and recovering" on ball screens, Gannon frequently double-teamed the ballhandler. And Gannon doubled its average blocked shots for a game, swatting away 5 Clarion attempts. I was thrilled that GU jumped on a team that had shocked Mercyhurst three days earlier. Reilly's strategy and the team's execution squelched any upset bid early on.

Knight Knotes:
* BIG thanks to everyone who donated their time and money to Saturday's Pink Zone event. My Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer book signing event was a success, raising $135 for the Pink Zone charity and giving me the chance to chat with many Gannon Hoops fans in the Hammermill lobby. Thanks for your support!

* I'm not sure about C.J. Oldham running the point, which we saw a lot of yesterday. On one hand, having a 6-foot-8 forward handle the ball allows Oldham to see over defenses and dribble against a slower defender who is less likely to bollix up the offense with pressure D. On the other hand, Oldham committed 5 turnovers yesterday and isn't an outside threat. Not sure if this was a temporary experiment or if Reilly just found out there's a trophy for Tallest Division II Point Guard that he wants to get his hands on.

* Not sure how this happens, but it did. In one 4-day span, Mercyhurst gets shellacked at Clarion by 27 and shocks nationally ranked IUP, 57-48. As Golden89 says in the comments below, I'm not sure how the tie-breakers work, but Gannon has a legit shot at finishing the season with the same record as the PSAC West-leading Crimson Hawks. But from a big picture standpoint -- i.e. making the NCAA tournament -- I still think Gannon needs to win out and get to the PSAC finals to feel comfortable about an NCAA bid with a 25-6 record. Anything less than that could leave us out in the cold come Selection Sunday.

* Saturday's Millersville/Kutztown game was postponed until Monday for a reason I'd never seen before: As this press release says, "Illness and injuries left KU without enough healthy players." The wacky PSAC East gets even more bizarre.

* Friendly reminder: The first Atlantic Region rankings are due out Wed., Feb. 20. If Gannon had whipped Edinboro at the Audi, I'd be really pumped to see where the Knights stand. Now I'm hoping they'll be top 8 material. Expect in the mix these dozen clubs -- from the WVIAC: West Liberty (24-1), Fairmont State (18-6), Alderson-Broaddus (16-7), and Charleston (16-7); from the CIAA: Winston-Salem (19-4), Livingstone (18-5), and Johnson C. Smith (16-8); and from the PSAC: East Stroudsburg (20-3), IUP (19-4), Slippery Rock (17-6), Gannon (20-5), and West Chester (17-6).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Doom Date

Most of the time, I love being right. But this time I hate it. On Wednesday, before Gannon's frustrating 67-64 home loss to Edinboro, two co-workers asked me for my pregame prediction. I rarely offer predictions because human performance is typically unreliable, but I told my colleagues I had a bad feeling the Knights would lose for 5 reasons:
1. Edinboro big man Bryan Theriot was playing again after injuring himself a month ago vs. Gannon. The Knights have never been able to handle the 6-foot-9, 300-pound Theriot.
2. Algeron Torrence, who scuttled the Scots with a 24-point performance in January, was expected to be sidelined for the rematch. He was in street clothes once again.
3. Edinboro had a 6-2 road record, much better than their 4-5 conference mark at home. They clearly like a hostile environment, and Wednesday night was expected to be the most hostile crowd the Fighting Scots had seen all season.
4. We were thrilled Gannon won two road games last week, but the Knights didn't put up 60 points in either of those games. If you take the 69-56 loss at Slippery Rock into account, GU had scored in the 50s three of their last four games. The Knights have been winning games, but you couldn't call them "hot."
5. This was Gannon's first game of the year with a national ranking, which is oftentimes the kiss of death.

All of those factors came into play Wednesday night -- well, maybe #5 is a figment of my imagination. With the 260-pound Torrence sidelined, Theriot registered a healthy 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting and snagged 10 rebounds. The loud crowd seemed to energize Edinboro. The Scot guards were comfortable in the first 5 minutes of the game and then the entire second half, while Gannon's offense frequently sputtered, stalled, and forced contested jumpers.

All is not lost, but the chance to host the PSAC tournament is. GU is now two full games behind first place IUP, and the chances of the 15-3 Crimson Hawks losing two games on their remaining schedule (@ Mercyhurst, vs. Edinboro, @ Slippery Rock, vs. Lock Haven) is as thin as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. If Gannon's offense doesn't start clicking, second place in the West and an NCAA bid will be out of their reach.

As bummed as I am about the loss, I can't end this post without talking about Darrell Blanton's first half dunk that still has Gannon fans buzzing. Does anybody have it on video? I looked on the Gannon site, JET TV, and WICU/WSEE but couldn't find it. UPDATED 2/15/13: Click here to watch Blanton's dunk, courtesy Gannon SID Dan Teliski.

My description won't do the dunk justice, but from what I recall, Robert Wilson drew the attention of the Edinboro defense and possessed the ball in the left short corner. As Blanton cut from the free throw line to the middle of the lane, Wilson fed him a bounce pass on the move. Blanton took one giant step, soared above the entire Scot defense who was trying to recover from covering Wilson, and crushed the rim (and Scot Bobby Davis) with a right handed thunderbolt.

My question is was that the greatest Gannon dunk you've ever seen? It's certainly worthy of consideration. After talking with some longtime Golden Knight fans and racking my brain, here's a list of memorable dunks that Blanton is competing with:
* A Tanner Furno full-speed flush at Slippery Rock. I didn't see it, but many who did said their jaws hit the floor when it happened.
* I can't recall against who, but Josh Morgan caught the ball on the left wing, pump-faked his man out of the way, then soared down the lane for a ringing one-hand stuff.
* Mitchell Smith's two-hand dunk vs. Millersville might not have been physically amazing, but being in the NCAA regional finals against the #1 team in the country gives it bonus points.
* Derrick Price pulled off a 270-degree dunk on the right baseline in the Porreco Cup final against eventual national champ Virginia Union.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Today's blog post is sponsored by the number 2, thanks to Gannon's frenetic 56-53 win this evening at California (Pa.). The number 2 represents:
** Gannon wins this week on the road.
** The number of Gannon road losses this season through 10 games, a scintillating 8-2 mark.
** The number of opponent three-point attempts at the end of regulation that missed which, had they connected, could have sent this season into a nosedive.
** The number of points my 7-year-old daughter scored on her team's first possession at her Upward basketball game this morning, Evelyn's first field goal of her life. She followed that up to 2 more baskets. (Sorry -- that has nothing to do with Gannon basketball. I'm just a very proud daddy.)
** Most importantly to the GU program, the number 2 represents where the Knights stand currently in the PSAC West, all alone there thanks to Slippery Rock blowing an 18-point lead during their 60-57 loss at Mercyhurst this afternoon.

Here are some more thoughts -- not sponsored by the number 2 -- related to today's game:
* The Knights (19-4 overall, 13-4 PSAC) control their own destiny to earn a first round bye in the league playoffs. And with just one loss by IUP (14-3 PSAC), GU could earn the right to host the conference tournament. Were you thinking this was possible after Gannon fell to 1-2 and last place in the league after their second consecutive home loss on Dec. 8 to IUP? I sure didn't.

* Great factoid from Gannon SID Dan Teliski's post-game summary: "Gannon picked up a rare win on Cal's home floor. The Golden Knights entered the contest 1-7 all-time at Cal, including 5 straight setbacks. The program's only victory ever at Cal was an 86-71 verdict during the 1954-55 campaign." All that is true for games played there vs. the Vulcans. But Gannon did win a game at Cal's Hamer Hall on March 12, 1994, when the Knights bested Edinboro 75-66 in an NCAA regional consolation game.

* It's great that senior Tanner Furno, the PSAC Freshman of the Year and a former Gannon starter, is ready to play when asked. With Darrell Blanton in foul trouble, today Furno led the Knights in scoring with 12 points and 6 rebounds in 24 minutes of play. He could have been sulking after seeing just 8 minutes of floor time Wednesday night, but instead responded with maturity.

* California starters Keith Lowe and Quentin Harding were averaging a combined 27.5 ppg entering today's game, but Gannon held the pair to just 15 points on 5-of-27 shooting from the floor in 74 minutes of play. Shut down defense like that is what earns you wins on the road.

* You know why you should never bet on sports? Gannon shot just 28.6% in the first half (8-for-28) and then were a blistering 65.5% (15-of-24) in the second half. Same guys, same opponent, same gym ... radically different result.

* Slippery Rock is now 0-2 in Erie County this season after today's three-point loss at Mercyhurst. SRU collapsed down the stretch at Edinboro on Jan. 26 when they lost to the Scots 62-59. When the Rock visits Gannon on Feb. 27, you'd have to make the Knights a three-point favorite, right?

* We are now just 11 days away from the first official regional rankings of the season. My best guess/hope is that 19-4 Gannon will be in the top 5 along with West Liberty (22-1), East Stroudsburg (18-2), IUP (18-3), and Winston-Salem (17-4).

* Maybe this week was payback for all the gutwrenching, heartbreaking, exasperating close losses the Knights have suffered the past three seasons in the PSAC West. Let's hope next week, with home games vs. Edinboro and Clarion, isn't payback for our good fortune this week.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Awesome! Gannon 57, #7 IUP 55

I'm still so nerved up from Gannon's pulsating 57-55 win at #7 IUP tonight that I can only offer disjointed observations on tonight's game that I watched via live video feed.

* As ewensel says in the comment section of this post, that is the biggest Gannon win in years. Not since capturing the PSAC championship in 2009 have the Knights knocked off a legitimate NCAA heavyweight in a relevant contest. What makes this W all the more impressive is that for three-quarters of the game, Gannon was clearly the better team. Only GU's dreadful 12-for-28 (43%) free throw chart kept this game close.

* Gannon's aggressiveness from the outset established the right tone and is the reason we're all beaming now instead of bawling (or irrationally bashing the coaches). Instead of picking up the ballhandler a couple steps beyond the three-point line, John Reilly extended his defense to at least midcourt and occasionally full court, even with a late-game lead. In past Gannon/IUP games, we've seen the Knights forced to trigger their offense from 30 feet away from the basket and their ballhandlers dribble backwards instead of into the paint. Tonight, the Crimson Hawk guards were the guys on their heels.

* This might seem strange based on his stats (23 minutes, 2 points, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, and a grade school-like 0-for-4 from the foul line), but I think tonight's #1 difference maker was Gannon PG Jabs Newby. I don't believe he was on the floor at all during the 7-minute stretch when IUP's 21-3 blitz -- which included a 15-0 spurt -- turned a 35-24 Gannon lead into a 45-38 Indiana advantage. When he was playing, Newby pressured his man, not allowing open shots, dribble penetration, or post passes. And when IUP tried pressuring Newby, he'd increase his aggressiveness and blow past his man, creating scoring opportunities and drawing fouls. When IUP punched, Newby would punch back harder. There was a stretch late in the first half where the game action lasted for over three minutes without a stoppage in play. I watched Newby for most of that time, and he didn't take his foot off the gas for a second. The "Jabs Factor" was huge tonight. They don't win this game without him.

* Some stats of note: Gannon turnovers -- only 12. Rebounds -- Gannon 37, Indiana 29; the Knights had a near 2-to-1 rebounding advantage in the first half. Second chance points -- Gannon 17, IUP 3. Gannon shot better on threes (5-for-9, 56%) than they did on free throws (12-for-28, 43%). GU was 4-for-13 at the line in the first half.

* Before tonight's stunner, Indiana was 24-1 at Kovalchick Arena including 11-0 this year. This was their first-ever PSAC loss in their new digs.

* Gannon just beat the #7 team in the country ... on the road. I bet the bus ride home is a thrill. I'd be admiring the box score the whole way home. In fact, I'm going to go look at it again now.

* I received a text after the game from a Gannon fan who said, "This more than justifies Reilly's post-Lock Haven tirade." I agree. This was by far the most intense I've seen the team this year. They were energetic on the ball defensively, on the boards, and even on the bench. Instead of just checking out of the game and sauntering down the bench, players were enthusiastically fist-bumping each other.

* Steve Piotrowicz can't get a break, can he? He was the starting point guard for the Gannon teams that struggled mightily at IUP the past few seasons. Now a first-year graduate assistant at Indiana, he's again on the losing side of this rivalry. I've known Steve, a longtime diehard Gannon fan, since he was a scrappy fifth grader at Our Lady's Christian and hustling for the Erie Red Storm AAU team. This was the first time I've ever wanted "his team" to lose. I wonder who his dad was rooting for tonight? Larry Piotrowicz is one of GU's most faithful supporters.

* I stand corrected. (Click here for details.) Should I go back and change the article's headline?

* I agree completely with mccoy's comment below that Gannon's attitude has to immediately switch to, "Don't sleep for Cal." Tonight's win means nothing if the Knights don't take care of business Saturday against the Vulcans, who won at Edinboro tonight, 73-72.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

If Riles Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy

I'd like to share with you some of the notes I wrote while sitting at the scorer's table today watching Gannon's 77-66 defeat of Lock Haven at the Hammermill Center: "Outworked? GU didn't match defensive intensity of prior games. More ball pressure." I wasn't sure if I'd mention any of that in my post-game comments for a couple reasons. First, saying guys didn't play hard is about the harshest criticism you can give to an athlete, and I didn't want to go there if I wasn't 100% sure effort was lacking. Second, Gannon held a double-digit lead for most of the game, including a 20-point advantage with 7 minutes left. Was I being too critical of a now 17-4 club that clinched a posteason berth today?

I felt vindicated when I heard coach John Reilly's comments during his post-game radio interview with Jim LeCorchick. "I'm very disappointed," Reilly said. "We won, but I don't feel like we won because of how we acted." He also said, "Their energy was better than ours. Energy level is the most important thing for us."

It wasn't that Gannon was lethargic for 40 minutes. They played like their normal, Tazmanian Devil selves in spurts, such as when Tanner Furno battled for his 5 offensive rebounds and Robert Wilson dove into the base of the scorer's table late in the game when an ordinary player would have watched the ball roll over the sideline. But this wasn't the suffocating Gannon defense that we've seen put decent guards on their heels, rushing shots then showing frustration.

As Reilly said, "If we want to be a team that wants to be a contender, then the energy's there regardless. ... If we want to be a contender, our energy level always to be there." I have a feeling Riles will make sure the energy is there in practice this week and Wednesday night at IUP.

And for all of you who will respond, "Riley should be yelling at himself for working the guys too hard in practice," please save your breath. This team is deep and has split plenty of minutes over the first 21 games. Even if practices are difficult, there's no reason in the first half of a game -- especially when you're battling for an NCAA bid -- you shouldn't have maximum intensity every possession.

I recall a practice early my senior season when Bob Dukiet told us our effort was good enough to beat many teams on our schedule but he wasn't going to settle for that. "We have to play every day, every practice, every possession so we get good enough to beat Virginia Union," he said. That's the standard he set, and it sparked us to a 22-6 record and a Porreco Cup championship over Union, the eventual D-II national champs that year. I hope this edition of Golden Knights learn that same lesson and whip #8 IUP in a few days.

Other thoughts related to today's game:
* It was great to see Troy Nesmith and Chuck Campagne today during the halftime Hall Of Fame ceremonies. Chuck was my first real boss when I worked in the Career Concepts office in 1992, and he's earned every penny he's made. You had to get up really, really early to beat him into the office. I got to know Troy during several interviews and a photo shoot for SportsLook magazine back in the mid-90's. I'm also honored to say I played against him when Gannon scrimmaged an alumni team prior to the 1997-98 season. My main goal that game was to make sure Nesmith didn't land on my ankle and blow out his knee. I'd have felt terrible ruining his and the team's season.

* I give tons of credit to Lock Haven coach Mike Nestor for quickly turning the Bald Eagles into a respectable program. Nestor had Gannon well scouted, recognizing GU's offensive sets and calling them out to his troops. Lock Haven was clearly outmanned today, but played hard and smart for most of the game. They'll end this year a dozen games under .500, but that's not what matters. They are competing and will be a team to reckon with next year.

* Can you believe today was Tanner Furno's first career double-double? The senior popped off the bench for 17 points and 10 rebounds. LHU didn't have an answer for his crafty moves in the lane or his length.

* Today might have been Robert Wilson's best offensive performance in a Gannon uniform. He scored 22 points on just 14 field goal attempts, connecting on 6-of-9 from three-point range. At this rate, we'll see him inducted into the Gannon Hall of Fame in the near future.

* How about Darrell Blanton and Adam Blazek producing a combined 2-for-12 shooting chart and Gannon still wins going away? Besides Furno and Wilson, impressive Knights were Oscar Macias (15 points, 3-of-5 threes) and super sub Brandon Emmitt. The redhead guard played just 14 minutes but scored 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, including a gorgeous drifting jumper to beat the shot clock buzzer late in the second half.

* Have you looked at the Gannon team stat sheet lately? Some of the free throw numbers are shockingly good: Macias (91.8%), Furno (88.2%), Emmitt (86.4%), Algeron Torrence (80.0%), Blanton (77.1%), and Wilson (77.1%). Blazek was Gannon's best foul shooter a year ago, and even though he's a respectable 75% this year, that ranks only 7th on this year's club.

* After today's action, 11-4 Gannon is once again tied for second place in the PSAC West with Slippery Rock. SRU lost today at IUP, 55-49. The Big Ind -- I mean Crimson Hawks -- are 13-2 and I think would lock of the #1 spot in the West with a win over Gannon this week. Edinboro is lurking in 4th at 9-6 after their win at Clarion today. Mercyhurst (8-7) held onto 5th place by rallying past 6th place Cal (7-8) in overtime at the MAC.

* In the battle of the East's top two teams, East Stroudsburg won by 10 at West Chester, 87-77. Stroud (14-1) leads the East by three games while WCU is now tied with Millersville at 11-4.

* If you're wondering about the first regional rankings of the year, you'll have to wonder 18 days longer. The first rankings aren't until Feb. 20 with only two more after that.

* Friendly reminder: In two weeks (Feb. 16), I'll be part of Pink Zone 2013, the cancer fundraiser coordinated each year by the Gannon women's basketball team. I will sign copies of my book Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer with $5 from each sale being donated to the American Cancer Society. The book's regular price is $17.95, but I'll sell it at the Hammermill for just $15. For more details, click here.