Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Knights Still On Solid Footing, Rock Reputation Slipping

This week Gannon extended its winning streak to eight games with a rugged 57-54 win Wednesday over Slippery Rock but came crashing back down to earth Saturday when they fell to #6 Indiana (Pa.), 72-62. Unless some cataclysmic event takes place, IUP will win the PSAC West going away (they're three full games ahead of our Knights). 

Gannon’s postseason hopes are strong as well; they hold a three-game lead over Pitt-Johnstown for second place and a six-game lead over Seton Hill and Cal for sixth place, the final playoff spot in the West. The scenario for Gannon to fall to seventh place isn’t worth detailing here; we’d all have jumped off the Hammermill Center roof by that point.

With Gannon still in good shape and no overtime games to discuss, I'd like us to look beyond basketball for a bit. The late, great Dean Smith describes the purpose of an athletic program this way: "Athletics is to the university like the front porch is to a home. It is the most visible part, yet certainly not the most important."

I've written before about how John Reilly has done a stellar job maintaining his “porch” -- no embarrassments, arrests, academic chicanery, misbehaving coaches, or preening players. I’m going to talk about another team here, and maybe I don't have the right to say what I'm about to because I only see them once or twice a year. But here’s how I see it.

Slippery Rock's men’s basketball “porch” is a regrettable representation of their university.

Before I share details behind that statement, let me explain why a Gannon grad like me cares about The Rock. SRU is where my parents met and both graduated with teaching degrees, and they were proud of their experiences there. I grew up before kids had phones and everyone had cable TV, so I spent many rainy days poring over the black-and-white photos in Slippery Rock yearbooks. Soccer photos from the 1960s, when the game was foreign to most Western Pennsylvanians, were particularly entertaining to me.

My mom would laugh while telling stories about her quirky roommates, overbearing residence hall monitors, and her time in class with soon-to-be rock legend Donny Iris. I don't know much about music, but I know his real last name is Ierace and that teachers would scold him by saying "Mr. I-ROTCH-EE!" because of my mom's fond college memories. I don't want to overstate it and say the place seemed magical to me, but it certainly was admirable.

Today, when I see how men's basketball coach Kevin Reynolds represents Slippery Rock, I have a much different opinion of the school. I sit by the opposing bench most every Gannon game in part to observe the coaches (I'm a student of leadership and try to use every situation to learn), and here's some of what I recall from Wednesday:
  • You know how when a fan says the coach complained about every call or whined the whole game, they don't literally mean every call and the whole game. But I'm being literal here when I say Reynolds barked at the officials -- or sometimes just shouted at the wind -- for essentially all 40 minutes Wednesday.
  • He received a warning for being outside the coaching box early in the game and was unapologetic about committing the infraction. In fact, it seemed like for the rest of the game he was baiting the officials by regularly wandering to half court or stomping three steps onto the floor during a dead ball.
  • After coach Reilly vociferously (but briefly) argued a block foul call against Evan Phoenix, Reynolds made sure to harangue each referee one-by-one on the ensuing possessions. "Why didn't he get a box warning? Why didn't he get one? How come I got one and he doesn't?" he yelled at each official. Then he started shouting to nobody in particular, "Isn't it sportsmanship week? I thought this was sportsmanship week," to the bewilderment of the folks sitting around me. (P.S. Happy belated unofficial sportsmanship week, everybody!)
  • The capper for me came with 11 seconds left in regulation when -- I'll spare you all the technical details -- Reynolds was denied inserting a player back into the game because time hadn't run off the clock since the player subbed out. Gannon official scorer Rick "Stats" Klapthor caught it, and then one of the officials informed Reynolds. "The clock moved," stated Reynolds, who clearly embraces the concept of alternative facts. When informed that wasn't the case, he continued to state his false claim: "The clock moved. The clock moved." When the official walked away from him, he started shouting at him, "You're crazy! This is crazy! You're absolutely crazy!"
The thing is, I've seen a version of this all before. The only new part was the bald-faced lying. This wasn't just a "bad day" for Reynolds or him justifiably standing up for his kids because his team was getting manhandled. I recall in 2009 at Slippery Rock when the officials stopped the game because an SRU student fan grabbed Tyler Stoczynski’s jersey during a sideline inbounds play. When the officials asked Reynolds to address the kids, he promptly walked across the court … and started slapping hands with them!

I’ll admit I don't know Kevin Reynolds. John Reilly said in his postgame radio interview that the two of them are friends, so maybe off the court he’s the Mother Teresa of Division II basketball. And there’s no doubt Reynolds can assemble, coach, and motivate a tough, defensive-minded team every year. If you pay attention to his kids and not him, you’d think that Slippery Rock was a school for blue-collar, hard-working, nose-to-the grindstone kids. Who doesn’t love that?

But the fans I talked with after Wednesday’s game didn’t mention anything about SRU players because Reynolds’ hysterics were so distracting. If Reynolds doesn’t change his in-game behavior and Slippery Rock officials continue to ignore how he represents their school, to me that says a lot about the university well beyond their front porch.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Earning What You Get, Getting What You Earn

After starting the season just 5-5 (3-3 in the PSAC), Gannon finished this week celebrating its seventh consecutive win after road victories Wednesday at Mercyhurst, 78-73 in overtime, and Saturday at Mansfield, 81-76.

In the postgame radio interview after his Knights held off the Mounties, John Reilly was asked about Zay Jackson's performance which featured a career-high tying 29 points on 9-for-9 shooting from the foul line and a 6-of-10 chart on three-pointers. "He deserves to make those shots," Reilly said. "He puts in extra time at the gym on his own, so he deserves it."

Isn't that essentially the theme of this year's team? Nothing has occurred by happenstance; everything has been hard-earned. Five overtime games in a six-game span was certainly coincidental, but winning all of them wasn't a byproduct of luck. This team outrebounds, outhustles, and outguts its opponents for 40 minutes -- 50 if necessary. Even the little-used bench players (which is pretty much everyone outside Gannon's starting five) exhibit more enthusiasm than their opponents.

Why is Matthew Dogan having a breakout season? Over three-plus years he's worked and willed his way to being a better player. Why is soon-to-be PSAC West Freshman of the Year Jimmy Berger playing with wisdom beyond his years and now emerging as a scoring threat? Because he's a gym rat and he's open to guidance from his teammates and coaches. And why is Damon Miraud, who I think is closer to 6-foot-3 than the 6-foot-5 he's listed at, within a couple boards of being the leading rebounder in the PSAC? He just wants it more. One possession late at Mercyhurst, Miraud looked like he climbed a stepladder to snare a rebound above a crowd of much taller players.

With the three other top-four PSAC West teams -- Slippery Rock, #10 Indiana (Pa.), and Pitt-Johnstown -- being Gannon's next three opponents, I'm prepared for the winning streak to come to an end. But I'll bet my last dollar this team won't be outworked, and whoever walks away from the Hammermill victorious these next three games, they'll have earned it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

I Reilly, Reilly Like This Gannon Team

John Reilly won his 200th game at Gannon this week, and I hope he coaches here long enough to get to 1,000. Or 2,000. Or maybe 3,000. I know that's physically not possible, but I think that would be great for all of us.

Reilly just guided Gannon to perhaps the most exciting two weeks in college basketball history. After a pair of overtime victories to start January, the Knights won three games this week with two going to OT: Monday at Pitt-Johnstown, 105-97 in OT, Wednesday at rival Edinboro, 80-69, and Saturday vs. Clarion 110-104 in 2OT. The Knights have at least 12 more games to play, but even if the season ended right now, we'd have a bunch of stellar victories to reminisce about.

Heart-pounding wins aside, I'm a Reilly fan because he's assembled and maintained a program the Gannon community can be proud of -- free of embarrassments, arrests, academic chicanery, and preening, knucklehead players. He also pushes kids beyond their limitations. Take Jimmy Berger and Zay Jackson over these last five games. They've each played a total of 222 minutes (an incredible 44.4 minutes per game), and still performed at a high level. You don't do that without someone pushing you outside your comfort zone.

I know firsthand that Coach Reilly helps young men break new barriers because he was an assistant during my four years as a Gannon walk-on. I always took pride being in top shape -- I ran 6.2-mile races as an 11-year-old, and during my four-year high school basketball career was substituted for only three times. But Riles pushed me even further. 

When Bob Dukiet was named head coach at Gannon in 1989 after my freshman year, he originally didn't plan on taking walk-ons. And I don't know this for sure, but I'm fairly certain Riles lobbied Dukiet to keep me on the team. Riles asked me to visit the office over the summer to help stuff envelopes where I could also engage with Coach Dukiet. He also put me through a workout I will never forget. Riles ran the middle of the court, dribbling and passing, while I filled the right lane and shot jumpers and layups. We sprinted the full length of the Audi repeatedly until my lungs burned. 

When he slowed down and said, "OK," I put my hands on my knees. But he tossed me the ball and said it was his turn to shoot the ball and my turn to pass. I didn't think I had the energy, but we ran hard for the next several minutes before he paused again and said, "Left side now." If it was anybody besides my coach, I would have said, "No, man -- I'm taking a break." But we pounded up-and-down the wooden floor again and again for several more excruciating minutes, Riles leading me with passes and I could only catch up to at full speed. 

It's hard to say exactly what impact that workout had on my life, but I know when I was interviewing with the company who is now my employer, my soon-to-be-boss said with a laugh, "We know we don't have to worry about your work ethic -- you're the Energizer bunny." Riles also showed me during that workout that people don't work for you; they work with you and you better work with them. I kept running that afternoon because I wanted to keep my spot on the team. Why was he running? What did he have to gain from sprinting until the muscles in his legs were fatigued? He was doing it for my benefit. 

It was fitting that Reilly's 200th win came in a game where his team outrebounded the opponent by a wide margin (50-33) and Gannon's Damon Miraud set a career-high with and incredible 22 boards. For 30+ years, John Reilly has helped young men achieve their full potential.

Other observations from a wild week of Gannon hoops:
  • Matthew Dogan's game-tying, buzzer-beating three against Pitt-Johnstown is now available online via the Gannon Athletics Twitter feed. Just click here to see the well-executed play
  • Scroll to the bottom of this post to see my most embarrassing moment in Gannon Hoops blog history. I could have deleted it, but it will be a good reminder for us all to never give up on this team.
  • John Reilly's player rotation plan Wednesday against Edinboro matched my lunch plan for that day: one sub. Joe Fustine was the only bench player to see action, spelling Evan Phoenix for 9 minutes in the first half. 
  • Edinboro's shot selection against Gannon was similar to Donald Trump's word selection. While the Knights beat Edinboro's zone with a high volume of passes, shooting only after the defense was caught out of position, the Scots often attempted contested, off-balance shots after one or fewer passes. Jaymon Mason was 6-of-25 from the field while EUP posted a 41% shooting chart overall. Sad!
  • What's the deal with the warm-up shirt for Clarion's Manny Powell (pictured here)? He wears uniform #3, but his shirt sees it differently. #YouHadOneJob
  • This week's games saw two incredible shots for Gannon opponents. For UPJ, a line drive first half pass from the right wing deflected off Dogan's arm and ricocheted into the basket. For Clarion, Cameron Grumley ended the first half with a heave several steps beyond half court. We can laugh at those shots now, but had the Knights lost those OT games, we'd be sobbing.

UPDATED 1/9/17 9:43 PM: I watched the first half of tonight's Gannon/UPJ game but then the video stopped working. Sigh -- life as a Division II fan. So I followed the game via live stats and, upon seeing Gannon down three with 3 seconds left and needing to go length of the floor, figured this one was over. So I updated this post with what I thought would be the final score (see screen grab below) ... and then Matt Dogan banked in a 40-footer to tie the game at 87 and send it into OT, Gannon's third straight game with an extra session. The score in the headline now is correct -- the Knights win in OT, 105-97. The Cardiac Kids from Peach Street have done it yet again!


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Cardiac Kids From Peach Street Have Done It Again!

That's one of my favorite lines by Jim Mirabello, the voice of Gannon basketball during the 1989-90 season when the Knights made a magical run to the Elite 8 in Springfield, Mass. That team seemed to play nail-biters every game at the Audi no matter who the competition. Yes, they captured the Mideast Collegiate Conference championship at the Hammermill, holding off coach John Beilein and Le Moyne, 55-53, in the semis, and then Pace in the title game, 54-50. But they also blew a 33-point lead to Allegheny -- yes, Division III Allegheny College from Meadville -- before posting an 80-79 victory, and they lost 84-81 in the Porreco Cup opener to Northern Kentucky, who ended that season with 21 losses.

If Mirabello returned to call Gannon's games for just this week, he could have proclaimed, "The Cardiac Kids from Peach Street have done it again!" again. The Knights wasted a 17-point second half lead Tuesday against California (Pa.) before winning in overtime, 93-88, and one-upped themselves Friday night, blowing a 19-point lead to Seton Hill before rallying to win in double OT, 83-73.

While frittering away big leads isn't fun, I have to say I found both games incredibly entertaining and enjoyable. The Knights give maximum effort every possession -- John Reilly wouldn't have it any other way -- and who doesn't love rooting for that?

I also enjoyed that these games produced situations and results I've never seen before, despite being glued to basketball games every winter for the past three decades:
  • Check out Matthew Dogan's stat line from Friday: 31 points (a career-high), 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 turnovers. But the most eye-popping numbers to me were his 25 field goal attempts -- he averaged only 6 FGA per game as a junior -- and a remarkable 48 minutes played.
  • Zay Jackson actually played more than Dogan, never taking a break and logging an Adam Blazek-like 50-minute evening ... after playing 44-of-45 minutes against Cal. Jackson had career highs of 29 points and 10 rebounds against the Vulcans, and for the week he committed only 1 turnover in 94 minutes of action. Have you ever seen a stat line like that before?
  • SHU's Spencer Casson entered the game as the leading shot blocker in Division II play (3.8 bpg), and he nearly doubled his average by swatting away 7 Gannon field goal attempts. But the kindly listed 240-pound junior became so exhausted he was literally walking down the floor in the second overtime as the Griffins set up their offense.
  • Seton Hill started the game a paltry 1-for-12 from the field and finished the first half 1-for-8 on threes. They started the second half burying 5-of-6 threes and finished the period 13-of-24 from the field. The wheels fell off in overtime as a clearly fatigued SHU shot just 2-of-12 including 1-for-5 on threes. Despite Seton Hill using their bench more liberally, Gannon was the fresher team in OT.
  • Maybe that was because Joe Fustine played 10 minutes against SHU, all of them in overtime. 
  • Or that Marcus Jones, listed as a 6-foot-2 guard in the game program, played 9 minutes of overtime at power forward after just 6 minutes of action during regulation. I was joking with folks at the scorer's table asking, "How many times has this unit played together in practice?" I can't picture Coach Reilly saying, "Yeah, were going to go with Joe at the 5, Marcus at the 4 ..." without everyone in the gym scratching their heads.
  • And I haven't even mentioned that against Cal Jimmy Berger played 42 minutes and produced 14 assists, and then followed that with a 48-minute, 8-assist performance against Seton Hill. There's another "never seen that before!"
There's so much more to talk about from this week -- Evan Phoenix's Rec Spec-style goggles that looked like he borrowed from 80s Gannon legend John "Shanghai" Matthews, Cal coach Kent McBride screaming at his team to "give a sh*t visually -- act like you care!", and a crowd of just 466 Friday night -- but I don't have the energy after watching those two marathons.

The Knights better have more spark than me today. They have a three-game week upcoming at Pitt-Johnstown (Mon.), at Edinboro (Wed.), and vs. Clarion (Sat.) which will determine the trajectory of this season.