Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Game Changer

Typically I'm not someone who cares about MVPs, MOPs, all-tourney teams, and other athletic recognition, but thank goodness there was an official "Game Changer" award for the Porreco Pride of Erie game Saturday. Gannon rallied past crosstown rival Mercyhurst, 82-76, mainly because of the aggressiveness of senior Matthew Dogan. I'm not gushing just because of his stat line of 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in 38 minutes of action. He literally changed the game on a series of plays when Gannon trailed 62-59 late:
  • 6:02: In transition and early in the shot clock, Dogan catches a pass to the left of the top of the key and sheds his defender with a quick head-and-shoulders fake. With his foot on the line, he gathers himself and zips in a long jumper. Mercyhurst 62, Gannon 61.
  • 5:43: Dogan not only blocks an attempted jumper by the Hurst's DaJuan Dent, he scoops up the defensive rebound and then is fouled by the Laker junior. Dogan makes 1-of-2 free throws. Gannon 62, Mercyhurst 62.
  • 4:48: About 30 feet from the basket near the top of the key, Dogan spots 6-foot-9 Evan Phoenix being fronted by 5-foot-9 H'ian Hale just above the right block. Without hesitating, Dogan lobs a risky pass that leads Phoenix to the basket where he catches, finishes, and is fouled. After the free throw it's now Gannon 65, Mercyhurst still 62. 
  • 4:11: Dogan catches the ball on the right wing and sees he's being guarded by little-used Laker big Kevin Marsh. Again without hesitation, Dogan drives to his right, takes the contact from Marsh, and finishes strong for a chance at another three-point play. After the made free throw, it's Gannon 68, Mercyhurst 62.
Are you noticing a theme here? It's not just that Dogan dominated for a stretch; it was the aggressiveness he showed at a time when many in the Hammermill Center were bracing for the Knights to wither. Dogan doesn't make any of those plays if his mindset is, "Don't screw up. Just move the ball from side-to-side."

I wrote this in December 2014 after Gannon nipped West Chester, 55-54, in a ragged affair at the Audi: 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.

Fast forward to Saturday: same guy, different mindset. Dogan chose to win the game for Gannon or die trying. As I mentioned to Gannon Hoops followers a year ago, I'm in the process of writing a book about former walk-ons who were underdogs as athletes but went on to achieve extraordinary accomplishments after graduation. I've conducted nearly 30 inspiring interviews to date, and one of the recurring themes is this: "Try. Go for it. Take a shot. Don't wait for something to happen. Don't be afraid to fail. Don't sell yourself short, and don't doubt yourself. Try."

When Gannon pushes the ball and tries to make plays (instead of just waiting for the opposing defense to break down), they're among the most potent offensive units in the PSAC. If they have that focus next week in the league tournament, here's hoping they can create some March Magic for all of us.

Other thoughts from the PP game. Wait, I mean the Porreco Pride game. (Some things just shouldn't converted to acronyms.):

  • Gannon/Mercyhurst games are usually offensive slogs in part because coaches Gary Manchel and John Reilly know exactly what the other is doing. But during the game's first half, I had to turn on my phone GPS to make sure I was in the right place. Gannon in a full-court press? Reilly giving his bench 18 minutes of action? Gannon with 0 rebounds after eight minutes of play? And 52 combined points just 12 minutes in? It was the most surprised I'd been since November 9th.
  • I've criticized a few opposing coaches on this site -- including one guy just four weeks ago -- but I'm going to heap some praise on Laker boss Manchel here. Yes, he works the officials, but he does it with dry humor instead of with anger and vitriol. After one official made a series of calls that Manchel didn't like, he said this to one of the other officials standing near him during a dead ball: "Wow, that guy's a piece of work, isn't he? Did he graduate from Gannon? I really think he graduated from Gannon." While the stone-faced official averted his eyes away from the Laker bench, Manchel added, "It's okay -- you can smile," which did elicit a grin from the referee.
  • Manchel also knew everything about the Knights -- their personnel, their inbounds plays, their half court sets -- everything. Thank goodness he only had two days to prep his kids for the Knights. If Mercyhurst was the one with a bye on Wednesday, Gannon might be staring at a three-game losing streak entering the postseason.
  • The game's final margin could easily have been double figures, but Gannon's 18-for-32 chart at the free throw line helped keep the game close. Thank goodness Dogan and Gerrell Williams hit the Knights' final four attempts.
  • Williams has had an up-and-down season, not just with his stats but also with playing time. Some games he's played over 20 minutes (four times) and in others he's barely seen action. But the junior transfer came through in the clutch Saturday. With Gannon up just two, he swished a pair of free throws with 35 seconds left to push the margin to 4. On the following defensive possession, Williams picked off a pass and exploded for a two-handed dunk, essentially sealing the game for the Knights. Oh, and what junior college did he transfer in from? Mercyhurst-North East. That's gotta sting! 
  • And here's a special end-of-the-regular-season bonus for you: It's a video clip of Philly Textile at Gannon from 1988 that former WJET-TV broadcast Mike Gallagher recently shared with me. The first 30 seconds may be the pinnacle of Gannon basketball: Crazy Gannon Highlights.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wasted Week

The most optimistic Gannon fans entered this week hoping that the Knights, seemingly ranked #11 in the Atlantic Region, could position themselves to sneak into the NCAAs as an eight seed. More realistic fans thought that with Gannon already slotted as the PSAC West second place team, John Reilly should use this week's games like exhibitions, resting his starters and gaining experience for his bench. And everyone was in agreement that with Gannon facing struggling Edinboro and skidding Slippery Rock, the Knights should come away with at least one win no matter who earned minutes.

Instead, we got none of the above.

Gannon wasted double-digit leads both games, collapsing in the second half Wednesday at home to Edinboro, 78-77, before getting shoved around at Slippery Rock Saturday, 71-67. The bench scored only four points at SRU, two field goals by hustling freshman Hans Burwitz who hadn't scored since Jan. 6. But that was better than Wednesday's bench production: 10 combined minutes played with zero shots attempted. I mean Edinboro's Jaymon Mason scored four points on one possession during the Scots' surge Wednesday night. Sigh.

One thing about college basketball is that the season is so long you can't fake who you are. After 25 games, the Knights are neither good or bad; they're just fair. At times they're brilliant on offense, but too often they commit a flurry of turnovers or can't create a good shot. On defense, they'll clamp down on their opponent for spurts then other times (see Edinboro Wednesday) let their foe get comfortable and score in bunches.

I'd go as far to say Gannon is essentially a .500 team who willed/scrambled their way to an improbable eight-game win streak in the middle of the year. Think of where Gannon would be if there were ties instead of overtimes in PSAC play. Instead of being 16-9, the Knights would sport a record of 11-9-5 ... which is essentially a .500 team (and a soccer team at that).

My biggest fear now is that with Gannon losing four of its last seven, they Knights are off track heading into the season finale and postseason. Let's hope in a week they don't waste the opportunity to get well against Mercyhurst.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"We Made A Lot Of Winning Plays"

Those were the words of Gannon coach John Reilly Saturday after his team finished a perfect week on the road -- no small feat in February. The Knights held off California (Pa.) Wednesday, 74-67, and then thumped Clarion, 80-60, Saturday night.

We've been repeatedly tormented this year by the Knights racing out to a double-digit lead only to see it vanish faster than you can say "Yoav Kadman." But Saturday with Gannon leading in the second half, they blew the game wide open with some of those aforementioned "winning plays." I wrote these notes describing three consecutive plays as the Knights extended the lead to 20:
  • Big man Evan Phoenix hit a free throw then raced down court to take a charge as Clarion tried to score in transition.
  • When the Golden Eagles tried trapping Gannon on the ensuing possession, point guard Jimmy Berger was caught under pressure near the mid-court stripe. Instead of panicking, he held the ball over his head and zinged a two-handed pass to a cutting Matthew Dogan along the left baseline for a layup.
  • After the Knights swung the ball side-to-side repeatedly, Dogan caught a crosscourt pass on the left wing. He ballfaked a three, causing an opponent to sail into the Gannon bench. After a dribble he faked again, moving another Clarion player out of position, and then led Phoenix to the basket with a nifty bounce pass to the left block.
If someone from Clarion had shut off the lights and raised the hoops at Waldo Tippin Gymnasium right then, I wouldn't have blamed them. The Golden Eagles took Gannon to double overtime less than a month ago in Erie, but Saturday it was clear which team is more improved. In that first matchup, a 107-104 Gannon win, Clarion was comfortable, hitting 18-of-32 threes on their way to a 55% overall shooting chart from the field. Saturday Gannon extended its defense two steps beyond the three-point line and often didn't allow penetration within 15 feet of the basket until the shot clock wound down. The result was CU shooting just 8-of-25 on threes and 20-of-47 overall, a measly 42%. Clarion had nailed 7 threes in the 10 minutes of overtime at the Hammermill but could only muster one more than that in 40 minutes in their own gym in the rematch.

It's clear the Knights are stepping up their aggressiveness in every aspect of the game. I've described already what they did on offense and defense, but look at these rebounding numbers. Gannon outrebounded its opponents this week by an incredible 78-41 margin (42-24 vs Cal, 36-17 vs. Clarion).

Add to that the steady play of Zay Jackson (6-for-10 on threes for the week) and the continued development of Damon Miraud (8-for-10 from the field with 17 rebounds this week), and Gannon's "Ironman 5" is making believers out of even the most skeptical fans.

Let's hope they keep making "winning plays" down the stretch.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Just When You Thought Decent Defense Was Back ...

Because of my daughter’s music recital at Mercyhurst Saturday afternoon (my family considered it a road game), I missed watching the beginning of Gannon’s contest at Seton Hill. But then thanks to the wonders of technology and WiFi, I was able to watch the last three minutes of the first half while we shopped at the Whole Foods Co-Op, enjoying Gannon grabbing a commanding 36-19 halftime lead.

Then the roof caved in.

No – not, the Co-Op roof. You’d have seen that on the local news. The Gannon defense completely fell apart, allowing a mediocre Griffin team to score 52 points in the second half on their way to a 71-65 final margin. Thank goodness the Knights rallied past Pitt-Johnstown (twice) on Wednesday, 71-70, or else we would be choking on a three-game losing streak right now.

One of the details that was lost during Gannon’s eight-game win streak in January was that the Knights allowed nearly 83 ppg during the first seven games of that stretch, including 88 to now 8-14 Cal, 97 at UPJ, and 104 to PSAC West cellar-dweller Clarion who just moved to 5-17 on the year. As I looked at my phone among the wheat germ and aspartame-free cola at the Co-Op, I thought to myself and texted a friend that if the Gannon defense keeps clicking, the Knights could hit the 20-win mark and make noise in the postseason.

Even though Gannon allowed Pitt-Johnstown to shoot 48% from the field Wednesday, including 42% on threes, I thought their defense was much improved from earlier in the season. The first time the teams hooked up, senior A.J. Leahey scored at will, knocking down perimeter shots without a hand in his face. His monster stat line that game: 34 points, 10/15 FG, 7/10 3FG, 9/10 FT. But Wednesday Leahey was forced into 7-for-17 shooting because Gannon bodied him all over the court, forcing him to adjust his release point because of the defender who was chest-to-chest with him.

That’s part of what made Saturday’s collapse so frustrating. Just when you think this new unit – remember, Matt Dogan is the only returnee who gets significant playing time – has finally grasped John Reilly’s smothering man defense, they allow a team that a week ago scored just 32 points in a 35-point loss to Slippery Rock to get comfortable.

The silver lining is that despite losing 2-of-3, the Knights are allowing just 71 ppg during that stretch. We all hope they stymie Cal and Clarion this week, and I'm praying they do it with defense.