Saturday, December 20, 2014

Perfect Knights Pummel Poor Cheyney

Dear Santa Claus:

You have been super generous to my family in the past, but I do not need any gifts this year. I've already been blessed by a perfect 6-0 December by my favorite basketball team, including an 82-51 avalanche today at Cheyney. It's not just the win I'm happy about; it's the way the game unfolded and what the result means:

* Adam Blazek scored only 3 points Wednesday vs. West Chester but got back on his sleigh in a big way today with 30 points. I've never seen anyone without a shiny nose lead a team so well!
* The Knights were outrebounded Wednesday but bounced back in a big way today with an unthinkable 46-16 advantage on the boards. Wouldn't you imagine your elves could keep the rebounding margin under 30?
* Gannon committed a season-low 11 turnovers against Cheyney. I'm glad they're leaving their "season of giving" ways to a professional!
* Put it all together, and our Knights are 7-0 in conference play after stumbling out of the stall with 4 losses in their first 6 games. Back in November, I thought this season might be like that foggy Christmas Eve I'm sure you remember. You had all those successful veterans back in your lineup -- Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen -- but for some reason you couldn't get it done. Well, I'm glad we're both back to our winning ways!

So skip me this Christmas and please deliver some presents to the following:
* Cheyney University: Earlier this week a Gannon fan sent me this article detailing the Philly-area school's financial woes. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach to see what was once a respected school "on the verge of a financial meltdown." Their team shot only 24% from the field in the first half today, but that's still 15% higher than the school's four-year graduation rate!
* The Hiram women's basketball team: They're the school who gave up a home game and moved up its season opener to allow an opponent with a terminal brain tumor to fulfill her dream of playing in a college basketball game. What a gift they gave that girl and her family, and what an example they set for all of us who take games too seriously.
* Gannon walk-on William Gadson: Can we get him at least one possession of playing time this season? Being a former walk-on, I have a soft spot for non-scholarship players who show up at practice every day but still need to pay for their books, meals, credits, and made-up expenses like a "globalization fee." Gadson has dressed for every game but is the only Golden Knight who hasn't seen floor time -- except when he's among the first off the bench to congratulate his teammates every time out. I love the enthusiasm. Let's get a giant lead and see what he can do when the clock's running.

Santa, thanks again for everything and good luck with all your deliveries this year. If you drop a gift, I wouldn't worry about it. Raphell Thomas-Edwards or A'Darius Porter will probably catch it before it hits the ground!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Final-ly! Knights Knock Off Stroud, West Chester

Finals week has traditionally been rough for both Gannon players and fans. Monday through Friday is filled with make-or-break exams, then the week concludes with a sub-par effort by mentally exhausted student-athletes against a cupcake opponent (Urbana, Tiffin, Penn State-McKeesport, Thiel, and Roberts Wesleyan were past mid-December foes. That's uglier than brown slush on State Street.)

Anyone who saw live or watched the video highlights of Gannon's 83-79 double-overtime win vs. East Stroudburg Tuesday and 55-54 slugfest victory against West Chester Wednesday realized this finals week brought some of the best basketball of the year to the Hammermill. Evident in both games were Gannon's guts, but otherwise the Knights took two radically different paths to a achieve a 6-0 PSAC mark:
   * vs. ESU: Gannon allowed 54% shooting in the first half, a season-high 79 points, and 12 three-pointers, committed 17 turnovers, clanged a dozen free throws, and blew a 7-point lead in just 15 seconds.
   * vs. WCU: Leading scorer and pre-season All-American Adam Blazek produced a season-low 3 points before fouling out along with #2 scorer Girbran Smith, the Knights shot just 42% from the field, allowed 13 offensive rebounds, and committed 18 turnovers.

If you saw only those stats and not the final scores, you'd think Gannon would have suffered an 0-2 week and John Reilly would still be stuck on 398 wins. (Congrats on that milestone, Riles. You certainly didn't take any shortcuts to get there.) Instead, the Knights ended a 7-game losing streak to Stroud and a 4-game skid vs. the Rams.

Gannon bullied ESU on the boards, outrebounding the Warriors an astonishing 55-32 including 0 offensive rebounds in the first half and just 7 for the entire game (compared to 19 GU offensive boards.) Raphell-Thomas Edwards led the charge with 17 rebounds, including three on one offensive possession in the second half.

I'm still not quite sure how Gannon ended up on the right side of the scoreboard against West Chester. The Rams showed high energy early, bolting to a 9-point lead, but the Knights scrambled on defense which both slowed down and frustrated their opponents. Cory Blake entered the game as West Chester's top scorer (14.6 ppg) but he was just 0-of-3 at halftime and 1-for-6 heading into the game's final possession, Gannon clinging to a 1-point lead. West Chester coach Damien Blair (more on him later) called time out and set up 4 Rams on the baseline, letting Blake go 1-on-1 against Thomas-Edwards. You can watch that possession here beginning at the 4:02 mark, but let me spoil the ending for you: Thomas-Edwards snuffs Blair's two attempts to get to the basket, and guard Avery Brown's driving attempt is stuffed by RTE. The Rams bench erupts after the buzzer sounds, in part because they thought Brown was fouled (he wasn't; watch the video) but also because the Knights' defense drove them mad ... and to a sixth consecutive loss, only one of those defeats by double-digits.

If the remaining games on Gannon's schedule are all 20-point snoozers, we could still look back on this season and say, "Man, there were a ton of amazing games this year!" Most finals weeks are forgettable for Gannon fans. This week's games were an outstanding outlier.

More thoughts on the Stroud and West Chester games:
* Due to a family commitment, I wasn't able to attend the GU/ESU game Tuesday (add that to my list of deathbed regrets). But Gannon SSID (Super Sports Information Director) Dan Teliski did not leave me in the dark. His extended video clips -- 9 1/2 minutes of action -- allowed me to watch nearly every key play. I commend Teliski and his staff on their efforts but also have to give credit to the University. It's been well publicized that Mercyhurst recently cut back on its sports information staff. Gannon has chosen to invest in first-rate coverage of its sports teams. I'm very grateful for that.

* And Teliski doesn't quit working when the game's over. He emailed me this gem today: "There have been 29 ties and 44 lead changes during our last four games against IUP, Shepherd, East Stroudsburg, and West Chester. And there were zero of both against Shepherd." I'll use this data when I ask my doctor for a double-dose prescription of migraine meds.

* Sitting near the opponent's bench for GU games, I come away disappointed by the behavior of most coaches. West Chester's Damian Blair took my dismay to a new level Wednesday. Early in the game after a double technical, I heard a Gannon fan shout, "Play the game right!" Blair heard it too, so he turned around and said to no one in particular, "I won't let them yell at my players." Then he looked at the Gannon radio team of Jim LeCorchick and Sean Amicucci and at me and said, "Who's in charge here? Where's your athletic director?" before walking to the middle of the press table asking similar questions. No big deal, I thought. The guy is intense and overprotective of his players. But clearly Blair isn't protective of or respectful towards officials. He spent a good portion of the game out of the coaches box, sometimes even making contact with the referees while he berated them.

In the second half, the Gannon fan I mentioned earlier made another comment (I can't recall exactly what he said but it wasn't vulgar), and Blair responded by muttering, "Get a job." Prior to the game's final possession, I said to a faithful Gannon season ticket holder sitting behind me, "If a call goes against them (West Chester) on this possession, this coach is going to go through the roof." I was incorrect on the direction of the explosion but dead on with the emotional reaction. After the final horn, Blair stormed from the bench to under the basket to protest the call -- you can watch it here starting at the 4:16 mark -- swinging his right arm at the referee as he got closer. One more step and he would have punched the official in the face or neck. Blair then walked toward midcourt screaming "f---ing bulls---" more than once before quieting down to shake John Reilly's hand.

Blair and other coaches like him have to understand they aren't just trying to win a game, they are representing their university. And I'm predicting the story I just told won't find its way onto the West Chester University website or into any of its prospective student marketing materials.

* I was happy Gannon won Wednesday and absolutely ecstatic for struggling sophomore Matt Dogan that his three-pointer with just over a minute to play held up as the final margin of victory. Before draining that trey, Dogan was just 8-for-38 from the field and 3-for-22 from behind the arc this season. When he first caught the ball, he looked around for a teammate to pass to before deciding to try the wide-open shot. A new local author was recently quoted in the Erie Times saying, "I believe writing chose me." Dogan didn't choose his game-winning shot; it chose him.

I hope this will be the boost of confidence needed to get Dogan, a red hot shooter at West Middlesex, on track as a Knight. Those who saw him play regularly in high school, including a former Gannon Knight who is a good judge of talent, thought Dogan performed at a Division I level. He can give Gannon an additional (and much-needed) perimeter scoring threat as we head into 2015.

* Speaking of 2015, Gannon's next 5 opponents all have .500 records or worse vs. Division II opponents: at Cheyney (1-9), at Millersville (4-7), at Shippensburg (4-4), vs. Kutztown (4-4), vs. Edinboro (3-4). That doesn't guarantee easy victories -- we learned that first-hand from West Chester -- but it sure sets up the Knights for second semester success.

* I might have said Gannon "passed finals week with flying colors" in this post but thank goodness I avoided that cliche. The stepfather of Gannon freshman Isaiah Eisendorf is syndicated sports columnist Norman Chad, so I need to raise my game in case he stumbles across this article.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Redeem Team, Part I

I don't know if John Reilly or any Gannon upperclassmen talked about last season's 85-75 loss to Shepherd (W.V.) before today's 74-56 shellacking of the Rams at the Hammermill Center, but it sure seemed to me the Knights played like they had something to prove. A few statistics and one anecdote made me think this was more than just another game for GU:

* Gannon held Shepherd 22 points below its season scoring average of 78.3 ... and a whopping 29 fewer points than the 2013 loss. The Rams didn't just look uncomfortable; at times, they looked like they wanted to be back on the bus.
* 6-foot-6 junior Morgan McDonald entered the game as the Rams' leading scorer (19.6 ppg) while attempting 13 field goals per game. McDonald finished with 7 points and just 6 field goal attempts in 31 minutes. He looked completely overwhelmed by Gannon's stronger and more athletic forwards.
* Gannon outrebounded Shepherd, 30-21, but that's commonplace for a Reilly team. I was stunned the Knights attempted 16 more field goals (57 to 41) for the game. No one on the SU team attempted more than 6 field goals while Gannon guards Adam Blazek (11-for-17) and Girbran Smith (7-for-16) got open looks all afternoon. Those seniors played like they wanted to beat Shepherd by a hundred.

Blazek turned in his best game of this young season. He wasn't just good -- he went off for 27 very loud points. After tallying 12 in the first half, including a stinging right-corner three at the buzzer, he was perfect in the second period. Blazek scored 15 points after halftime, making all 6 of his field goal attempts including 3 three-pointers. Blazek was hounded most of the afternoon by Steve Nash wannabe Skyler Roman, who must have made a few snide comments to the Gannon senior earlier in the game. With about 3 minutes to play and Gannon in the midst of a 10-0 run that pushed the lead to 26, Blazek held the ball on the right wing, guarded there by Roman. Blazek jab-stepped at Roman once ... twice ... then a third time before sticking a three in Roman's eye. After the shot zipped through the net, Blazek made a comment towards Roman, barked at him again when he crossed midcourt, then blurted out "Yeah, boy!" to him after a Shepherd turnover seconds later. Roman was promptly taken out of the game then Blazek buried another three which sent the Gannon bench into a frenzy.

Last year when these teams met, "SU" stood for Shepherd University. Today, because of Gannon's suffocating defense and Blazek's hot shooting, those letters represented "Shut Up," which is exactly what the Knights did to a pretty talented ballclub.

GU more than made up for last year's loss to Shepherd, and they'll have chances next week to redeem themselves for last season's two playoff defeats. On Tuesday Gannon hosts 5-2 East Stroudsburg, who ended GU's 2013-14 season in the second round of the NCAA's, followed by a Wednesday contest vs. 3-5 West Chester, who won the 2014 PSAC semifinal game 77-76 in overtime. Stroud and West Chester also drilled Gannon during the regular season last year ... which I'm sure Reilly and the Gannon veterans remember all too well.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hey IUP -- Who's Your Daddy?

Even though Gannon outlasted #5 Indiana (Pa.) Saturday night in overtime, 61-56, I'm still not sure who is the better team. But I know for certain who is the tougher club and who's currently the boss of the PSAC West after winning the fourth straight head-to-head matchup between these programs. The Knights pummeled the Crimson Hawks on the boards, 41-20, and it looked a whole lot worse than that. A couple IUP fans screamed bloody murder the entire game (moron ... I mean, more on them later) over the physicality of the Knight forwards, but it was plain ol' rough-and-tumble PSAC West basketball between the blocks.

Indiana produced more three-pointers, free throws, assists, and steals than Gannon, but GU owned IUP in the paint. When Raphell Thomas-Edwards posted up and scored early on, the thought "feed him all night long" entered my mind. Thomas-Edwards  entered the game averaging just 9.7 ppg but ended the evening with game highs of 22 points and 12 rebounds. Indiana's best post player was Drake transfer Daddy Ugbede, who finished with 13 points in just 24 minutes of play. Initially I wondered why IUP coach Joe Lombardi used situation substitutions with Ugbede most of the second half and OT, inserting Daddy for offensive possessions and replacing him on defense. When IUP big Devon Cottrell fouled out with 1:48 left in OT, I learned the reason behind Lombardi's substitution pattern. Thomas-Edwards scored under the basket at 1:13 to give Gannon a 57-56 lead, grabbed a defensive rebound on Adam Blazek's first (and very timely) blocked shot of the year, then tipped in a Blazek miss at the 19-second mark to push the margin to 3.

Ballgame.

Gannon was so dominant inside, they corralled 17 offensive rebounds to Indiana's 16 defensive boards. Lombardi sounded bewildered and defeated in his post-game comments to the Indiana Gazette: "We had a problem with them last year and I thought we got a little tougher. But when a team doubles you up in rebounding, it’s not just that they got 20 more rebounds, they had two-thirds of the rebounds. We won six games in 2007-08 and I don’t think that happened then. We’ve always had a certain amount of toughness and focus in that area, and this is hard to believe. … It’s not only physical but a mental competitive spirit that I have to generate in some of our guys. Some guys show up with it on your doorstep, and some guys don’t."

This win doesn't vault Gannon into the Division II Top 25, the top 8 in the region, or seal the PSAC playoffs. Heck, I think Gannon will be an underdog Saturday when they host 5-2 Shepherd (W.V.). But it certainly was satisfying to go toe-to-toe with a DII and Atlantic Region heavyweight and best them for the fourth consecutive game.

Other thoughts on the Gannon/IUP game:
* If you don't understand the "Who's Your Daddy?" headline reference, click here for the explanation. It has nothing to do with biological parenthood, by the way. That would be weird.

* How about that crazy left baseline jumper by Girbran Smith that gave Gannon a 51-49 lead with 23 seconds to play in regulation? He not only had a player draped all over him but he was drifting over the baseline. A lefty taking that shot would have a 0% chance at scoring a field goal, let alone hitting the rim.

* I loved the game day program photo of Porter, so it's accompanying this post. Does that kid always have energy or what!

* I mentioned earlier the couple -- they were either husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend -- who supported IUP by whining at the officials all evening. OK -- that's a slight overstatement. They actually sniped for "only" 39 minutes and 56 seconds of the 45-minute game with statements like "#32 actually has 10 fouls but you called only 5!" when A'Darius Porter fouled out and "#0's pushing, #0's pushing, #0's pushing, watch #0! Why won't you watch #0?"

These fans took 5 minutes off at the end of the first half when Gannon's Tony Boykins committed an offensive foul, Gannon's seventh team foul, and the female fan shrieked, "One-and-one! We should be shooting! It's one-and-one! Ref! It's one-and-one!" I don't know if she got a look, a nudge, or a comment from her husband/boyfriend/scream buddy, but they shut up for the final five minutes of the half because you don't shoot free throws after player control fouls. If you're going to scream your head off at the officials, at least know the fundamental rules of the game! It would be like me going to a squash match and yelling, "That should be a counter drop! Why didn't you call a counter drop!"

My true advice to these fans is how about you don't scream your head off and actually enjoy the game -- and allow others around you to enjoy the game as well. I actually moved my seat from the stands to an open spot at the press table to get away from this obnoxious pair, but unfortunately the press table isn't located in Rhode Island. Several Gannon staffers seated by me repeatedly turned around in shock to look at the loudmouths. One person said to me, "I've heard enough stupid comments tonight to last a lifetime."

Moments after IUP's desperation three fell out of bounds with 4 seconds remaining, I turned to see how the pair of blabbermouths were reacting. I saw nothing except empty seats. Thank you for your support and have a safe ride home. God help the trooper who pulls them over for speeding.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Trying Victory

All season long, we've credited Gannon for its effort (especially on defense) and lamented its offensive output. Tonight Gannon registered a season-high for points in its 68-54 win vs. Clarion tonight, but it was anything but a smooth ride getting there. Against Clarion's pressure defense, Gannon committed a mind-numbing 25 turnovers, oftentimes on successive possessions.

In fact, after both teams kicked the ball around 25 times in the first half (14 turnovers for GU, 11 for CU), they combined for 4 more in the opening 39 seconds of the second stanza. As Golden89 pointed out in the comments section of this post, the teams combined for 45 turnovers, 45 fouls, and 45 free throw attempts. When the Gannon coaching staff breaks down film from this game, I suggest they imbibe a few of these to make it more enjoyable.

One of the most fascinating aspects of tonight's game was Gannon's lineup. Freshman guard Adam Holm-Weber, who played just 30 minutes over the first 5 games and had yet to score, got the start and played 38 minutes. He didn't leave the floor even when his right leg cramped up during the second half. Jean Yves Toupane missed the last two games and didn't play the first 27 minutes vs. Clarion, but he played the final 13 and hit double digits with 10 points. Former starter Tony Boykins was one of the final Gannon players to sub in, but because of aggressive play on offense, he totaled 10 points and 16 minutes.

Matthew Dogan, a starter during the Gary Miller Classic where he logged 30 and 35 minutes a game, played just 3 tonight. Starter Raphell Thomas-Edwards only played 12 minutes. Foul trouble reduced his playing time, but Reilly decided not to reinsert him in the lineup late in the second half because Toupane was effective. And the way A'Darius Porter was rebounding -- 16 boards, 8 of them on offense -- there was no way he was going to sit on the bench for extended minutes.

Reilly's basic game plan seemed to be he was going to throw everyone on the floor and go with whoever was getting the job done. If you charted his substitution pattern, it would look like a Jackson Pollock painting (that's the image accompanying this blog post, for you non-humanities majors). A pattern may develop eventually, but for now the 3-4 Knights are in scramble mode, trying everything -- and certainly trying hard -- to develop consistency on offense.

Other thoughts and observations on the Gannon/Clarion game:
* I wrote this before the game: Clarion enters tonight's PSAC contest averaging 77.8 ppg and 16.8 offensive rpg. I'm not one for predictions, but I'll go out on a limb and take the under on both those statistics vs. Gannon. The Knights are ranked #2 in the country in defense, allowing only 54.3 ppg. Gannon held the Golden Eagles 23.8 points below their scoring average and limited them to just 7 offensive boards.

* Gannon murdered Clarion on the glass, posting a 41-22 advantage. Porter was an absolute monster inside. When I came home from the game, my wife was watching Wolfman on the SyFy channel, and I thought is was FOX 66 local news highlights of Porter going after a loose ball. If there's a hoops version of Marshawn Lynch in beast mode, Porter's got it.

* Gannon wasn't the only one using an unusual lineup. The Golden Eagles announced Ralph Naples as a starter despite him playing just 4 minutes in the 4 prior games. Naples ended the game having played only 5 minutes while registering 2 fouls and 2 turnovers. (Side note: Who was the last guy named "Ralph" to play at the Audi? I don't know either.)

* I give the Clarion team an A for effort tonight. I don't agree with their helter-skelter gambling defense, but at least they are trying. Past CU teams showed up at the Hammermill and left their desire for the game on the bus. First-year coach Marcess Williams preached intensity and energy the entire game.