Raiders sweep weekend PSAC West matches
After dropping games to Edinboro University and Wilmington University of Delaware last week, the Raiders returned home to face Gannon University and Clarion University over the weekend.
Shippensburg University’s men’s basketball team was reminded that there is no place like home — where it has won 30 of its last 33 games at Heiges Field House — as the Raiders dominated, never trailing in back-to-back Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) victories last weekend.
“It’s nice to be back on home turf,” SU head coach Chris Fite said. “Guys can sleep in their own beds and play in an environment they are comfortable in. In saying that, there is no excuse for us not to play the same way on the road, but I think they were energized and excited to get back home and put on a good performance.”
SU (5-2, 2-1 PSAC) got things started early on Saturday against Gannon University (4-4, 1-2 PSAC), as the Raiders started the game on a 14-2 run in the opening minutes and sustained it in a 65-48 victory.
“It was nice to finally play a game that felt like Shippensburg basketball,” Fite said. “We had a solid game on both ends of the court. Defensively, I thought we were excellent and offensively guys made shots. That’s a good recipe for success.”
John Castello was hot early, as he scored eight points, including two shots from 3-point range in the first six minutes to put the Raiders on top.
Shippensburg went 4-of-5 from 3-point range in the first four minutes and led by double digits for the remainder of the game.
“It was really awesome,” Castello said. “It’s really exciting watching everyone knocking down shots and getting the crowd going. That’s how we want to start every game.”
The Raiders carried that momentum throughout the contest, pushing the halftime advantage to 42-23.
“We came out and guys were ready to play,” Fite said. “It’s nice to see those first shots go down and everyone relaxes and plays up to our ability.”
SU played suffocating defense to limit Gannon to just 36 percent shooting from the field, including a 1-of-11 mark from 3-point range.
The Raiders survived a strong push by the Golden Knights as they tried to get back in it, holding SU scoreless for 7:29 in middle of the second half, but SU responded with a 10-3 run that included 3-pointers from Justin McCarthur and Castello to put the game away.
Castello finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, while knocking down a career-high four threes on 4-of-8 shooting.
“I’ve had a couple good days in practice and have been shooting the ball well, but it really is just about my teammates getting me open,” Castello said. “Especially Clay [Conner]. He’s really started the offense and with everyone driving and kicking and they make my job easy.”
SU forward Dustin Sleva tallied 13 points while pulling in 13 rebounds and blocking three shots. McCarthur and Antonio Kellem each had 12 points, while point guard Clay Conner had eight points and five assists.
On Saturday, the Raiders (6-2, 3-1 PSAC) picked up right where they left off, using a strong start to clip the Golden Eagles of Clarion (2-7, 0-4 PSAC), 78-65.
The Raiders used a strong run in the first half that included 12 points from Conner in the opening minutes and never looked back. SU led 36-14 with 5:19 left to play in the opening half, and pushed the lead to 43-24 by halftime.
The Raiders capitalized on mistakes in the opening half, scoring 18 points on 15 Golden Eagle turnovers.
“I thought we had another great showing on the defensive end, our half-court defense was excellent,” Fite said. “We didn’t rebound the ball tonight at all, but all that aside it was a good overall game, and we’re happy to get the win.”
SU came away with the 13-point win, but the game was not as close as the score indicated. The Raiders held the advantage throughout the contest, despite allowing 19 offensive rebounds.
Multiple players stuffed that stat sheet for SU, as Dustin Sleva recorded a double-double with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Sleva was extremely efficient, shooting 6-of-9 from the field and 8-of-9 from the free-throw line. He also recorded four assists and two blocks, while surpassing the 1,500-point plateau, becoming the sixth Raider to do so.
McCarthur finished with 16 points, while Kellem added 12 points and four assists on 3-of-4 shooting from 3-point range. Reserves Jake Biss and Manny Span both produced, as Biss scored five points while Span grabbed five rebounds.
“I’ve never ever been concerned about the offensive ability of this team,” Fite said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can score and they really share the basketball and they take pride in our system and playing together. All weekend we made shots and made good decisions so I’m glad to see that.”
It was an excellent weekend for Conner, and on Saturday he shined, scoring 15 points and six assists, while scoring or assisting on 30 of SU’s 78 points.
“It was definitely fun when we get it going like that,” Conner said. “We are a really unselfish team and everyone was sharing the ball. It was really great to grab two wins this weekend.”
Clarion’s Mason Mraz led the Golden Eagles with 14 points while Israel Atkins had 12 points. Cameron Grumley had 10 points and nine rebounds.
For the Raiders, the wins put SU back on track as it continues PSAC play against California University of Pennsylvania on Saturday, Dec. 9.
“In the season, you kind of learn each night that you’re out and just try to keep getting better and hopefully you peak at the right time,” Fite said. “It’s unfortunate that we dropped a couple games we thought we shouldn’t have, but you learn from those mistakes. I think we’re a better team than we were two weeks ago and we’re going to keep trying to get better.”
The Raiders and Vulcans will tipoff at 3 p.m. at Heiges Field House on Saturday.