|Photo by Joe Mattis, courtesy of Gannon University|
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.