Saturday, March 4, 2017

Cruel Finish, Bright Future

If you were asked to draw up the appropriate season-ending scenario for this Gannon club, the game would have three elements:
  • A close game. All season long, every single contest, the Knights played up to or down to their competition. If I were an end-of-the-bench walk-on this season, I would have never seen any action -- not one second -- because every game was in doubt down the stretch.
  • A wasted double-digit second half lead. I lost track of how many times that happened to Gannon this season. Seven? Eight? More? It's hard to get a lead of 10+ points in a third of your games let alone also give it all back minutes later most every time.
  • An overtime game. The Knights set a school-record for overtime games this season after playing five OT contests in a stretch of six, miraculously winning all of them.
All three of those elements came into play as Gannon closed its season with a heartbreaking 91-85 overtime loss to #5 Kutztown in the PSAC semifinals. The Knights held a nine-point lead with under two minutes to play in regulation, but missed free throws and a pair of KU three-pointers allowed a berth in the conference finals to slip away. John Reilly described it as a "cruel" loss during his postgame interview, and I couldn't agree more. I just tried watching the game's video highlights now but I couldn't do it. It's still too soon. (Note: I still haven't watched footage of the last game of my high school career when we lost in our conference finals. The video has been in my possession for 29 years, but it's still too soon.)

It would be an overstatement to say I enjoyed every second of this season. At times this club was exasperating (see the home loss to depleted and down Edinboro and the collapse at Seton Hill), but other times they were exhilarating. The PSAC quarterfinal win over Pitt-Johnstown was as complete a team win as I've seen in the Hammermill, and I've seen a ton of team wins in that building.

But it would also be an understatement to say I only liked this team. What started out as essentially a collection of strangers plus Matt Dogan turned into a team I couldn't cheer loud enough for. It might be blasphemous to compare a current Knight to Energizer Bunny alum Adam Blazek, but nobody has a better motor than junior Zay Jackson. Both played crazy minutes -- Blazek 37.7 mpg as a senior, Jackson 36.9 mpg this year -- and I still haven't seen either of them take a play off. Jackson is a wonderful outside shooter, but he's also an intense defender. That's an incredibly rare combination on any level of basketball.

Shortly after Jimmy Berger signed with Gannon, someone sent me his high school video highlights, and I was impressed with his combination of smooth skills and flash. But I thought "flash" isn't exactly a quality Coach Reilly looks for in his primary ballhandler, so the kid might be nailed to the bench for a while. That was true the first four games of the year, but Berger dazzled the rest of the season, racking up a team-high 191 assists (next highest was 73) and earning PSAC West Freshman of the Year honors -- and the vote wasn't even close.

Berger's success didn't happen alone. Yes, it took guys like Even Phoenix (a 55% shooter) and Damon Miraud (59% on his field goals) to convert those passes into assists. We should also give credit to senior Emmanuel Matey, even though he played in just 16 games and scored even fewer points (12) on the year. Matey has aspirations to become a coach, and I think he can put one year of experience on his resume already. Matey hopped off the bench to instruct and exhort Berger and the Knights almost as much as Reilly. Matey was slowed late in the season by a leg injury but that didn't hamper his mental toughness. At Slippery Rock, the last time he would see action as a collegian, he could barely participate in warmups, and when he moved a limp was obvious. But in the second half, the Knights needed a backup point guard to spell Berger and there was Matey on the floor mixing it up. Matey's number at Gannon won't be retired, but the character he showed this year will pay dividends for him the rest of his life.

And how much money would you have bet if I offered you a wager this preseason that I thought Matt Dogan would be an academic All-American and first-team all-PSAC? Dogan entered his senior season following a year he struggled to get off the bench for a 7-19 club that missed the league playoffs. In 10 games last season he scored three points or fewer, including a stretch of three games midseason where he failed to tally even a single a point. That same guy then goes out and leads the club this year with 17.6 ppg, ranks second for three-pointers, and ties for the team lead in steals. He also played maestro on the court, directing the cast of new players as they received their Division II baptism by fire.

The table is set for a sensational 2017-18, but it would be naive to think everyone slated to come back will return. Five underclassmen saw very limited minutes -- Ian Gardener, Joe Fustine, Hans Burwitz, Michael Haysbert, and midseason addition Jair Green -- and I'd be stunned if all of them were Golden Knights next year. Dogan will be difficult to replace, but I'm told that Frank Webb, a 6-foot-3 sophomore who sat behind the Gannon bench all season, should contribute right away. As a freshman at West Virginia State last season he registered 13.3 ppg on 50% shooting, including 36% on threes. Also, Naseem Hadrab, the "tall guy" sitting with Webb all season long, could contribute quality minutes in the paint next season. The website Verbal Commits lists two other future Knights, but I'll believe it when I see it nine months from now.

If I had to choose just two words to close this chapter in Gannon basketball history, they would be "gratitude" and "hope." I'm thankful to the staff and young men who made Gannon hoops exciting again this season. And, as down as we were at this juncture a year ago, I'm hopeful that next year can be something special.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

How You Gonna Deal With Pressure?

Photo by Joe Mattis, courtesy of Gannon University
I don't think a Gannon basketball team has ever been a bigger underdog for a home playoff game. Heading into their do-or-die PSAC Quarterfinal vs. Pitt-Johnstown, the Knights had lost two of three while the Mountain Cats had won five straight, their two most recent victories shellackings of Slippery Rock (93-65) and Seton Hill (112-53). Furthermore, Gannon's two wins against UPJ this season both came after last-second heroics, so it was hard to imagine lightning would strike three times.

With the season on the line, Gannon responded to the duress by doling out some pressure of their own. The Knights harassed Pitt-Johnstown on the perimeter and then attacked relentlessly on offense, racing to a 77-67 victory, undoubtedly their best overall performance of the year.

John Reilly said on his coach's radio show before the game that defensively the Knights were going to focus on ball pressure. The intent was to slow down the PSAC's best three-point shooting team by contesting their attempts and interrupting their rhythm, then cleaning up on the defensive boards. UPJ didn't shoot the ball horribly -- 25-of-50 from the field including 10-for-26 on threes (.385) -- but they were murdered on the boards, 40-23. Gannon grabbed 22 offensive rebounds while the Mountain Cats mustered only four offensive boards, their first coming just before halftime.

Gannon was leading by 6 with 3:30 to play when the defensive pressure made UPJ crack. Josh Wise drove to the basket where he was met by a leaping Damon Miraud. Wise missed badly, then he behaved even worse. He shouted at the underneath official so demonstratively that the ref had no choice but to whistle a technical foul. How you gonna deal with pressure? Gannon thrived while UPJ broke down.

Junior Zay Jackson has been excellent all year, but it's hard to know how a kid's going to respond to his first NCAA postseason game. I wrote this note about Jackson at the start of his streak of 11 consecutive first half points over a span of just 2:46: "quick, aggressive, focused." He ended the first half with 17 points, capped by a buzzer-beating three that was closer to 30 feet out than 20. After that shot he turned to the cheering Hammermill faithful, urging them to rise to their feet.

With Jackson killing UPJ in the first half, coach Bob Rukavina decided to spread his defense and discourage three-pointers. We've seen this happen all season long. Gannon races to a big lead, the opponent adjusts, Gannon struggles to score, and the lead evaporates. But Wednesday night, the Golden Knight big men answered the call. In the first half, starting forwards Damon Miraud and Evan Phoenix combined for just 4 points on 1-for-7 shooting. Over the final 20 minutes, they dominated play: 17 points and 4 rebounds for Miraud and 11 points and 10 boards for Phoenix. For you English majors like me, that's 28 points and 14 rebounds (I used a calculator) against one of the PSAC's best front lines in A.J. Leahey and Isaac Vescovi. Phoenix did most of his work on offensive putbacks and delicious dimes from point guard Jimmy Berger (11 assists) while Miraud whirled and twirled on slashing moves to the hoop.

The Gannon bench didn't play much -- three players combined for 21 minutes -- but they maintained the attack-attack-attack mentality Reilly wanted. The highlight of this group was Gerrell Williams' baseline drive-and-dunk three-point play midway through the first half (see photo above -- thank you, Joe Mattis!). Williams caught the ball on the left wing, immediately faked to his right, then exploded to the basket for a two-handed jam over and through a UPJ defender. The Hammermill Center crowd roared with approval and then, after the shock wore off, asked each other, "What just happened?"

The next step for Gannon this postseason is steeper than what we saw Wednesday. On Saturday they face PSAC East champ Kutztown, who boasts a glossy 25-2 record and #5 national ranking, on a neutral floor at Indiana (Pa.). The Golden Bears obliterated West Chester in their PSAC Quarterfinal, 114-93, shooting 60% from the field for the game and scoring 64 points in the second half alone. I'm eager to see how the Knights match up with a Division II heavyweight, and I'm curious to see how Kutztown handles Gannon's pressure.