The No. 8 ranked Shippensburg University men’s basketball team began its 2017-18 season with two big challenges in Shaw University and Virginia Union University, but the Raiders used strong second half shooting performances and stingy defense to remain unblemished.
The Raiders, 2-0, scored a combined 92 points in the second half and overtime in the two victories in the annual Wolf’s Bus Lines Classic that begins SU’s season each year.
SU began its season on Friday against Shaw, and the Raiders struggled offensively for most of the first half, but used a strong second half to push by the Bears, 65-53.
Shots were not falling early for SU, but the Raiders still held a five-point lead at the half despite just a 4-of-16 mark from 3-point range in the opening half.
“It was one of those games where you never really felt comfortable,” SU head coach Chris Fite said. “I never felt like we had turned a corner or figured it out, it was just a game where you thought it would come down to a possession or two. Fortunately, we were able to string together some stops and our guys made some big plays on the offensive end.”
The Raiders never trailed from the 2:32 mark of the first half after senior guard Justin McCarthur knocked down a 3-pointer before halftime. McCarthur had a strong opening game, scoring 17 points in his 36 minutes.
Preseason All-American Dustin Sleva was also sharp, grabbing a double-double in the win, scoring 16 points and snagging 11 rebounds. Clay Conner and Antonio Kellem also scored in double figures for the Raiders, scoring 11 and 13 points respectively.
Perhaps the best performance of the night came off the bench from junior forward Manny Span, who added eight points and seven rebounds. Span’s presence on the offensive glass helped the Raiders earn second and third opportunities, and his lockdown defense was necessary in the extremely physical contest.
“It looked like we needed it,” Span said. “I just went in there and played my game and the other guys helped me out and it just clicked. It all worked out and we got the W.”
“It was a game about toughness, and that’s right up Manny’s alley,” Fite said. “He was the right man for the job tonight and he did a tremendous job defensively as well as a great job on the glass.”
The Raiders clinched the game with 2:16 left to play when Sleva rebounded a missed 3-pointer by Conner, and put the ball back up for a basket to push the lead to double digits.
“I feel like every first game we start out slow,” Sleva said. “This is actually the best first game I think we’ve played in my time here. We stayed resilient and if we get down it’s not a big deal, we just get right back in the game.”
The second contest of the tournament featured an NCAA Tournament rematch from last season between the Raiders and the Panthers of Virginia Union. The Raiders sank a school record 18 3-pointers in a 79-59 win in the tournament last season, but struggled to pick up where it left off last year.
SU once again struggled to find a rhythm offensively in the opening half, especially from deep, sinking just 1-of-17 3-pointers in the opening half for 18 total points, but still emerged victorious, 78-72, in overtime.
“I would’ve never thought that was possible with the amount of talent we have here, but you have nights like that,” Fite said. “Our defense kept us in it by holding them to 20 points in the first half and we scored 60 points in the second half and overtime. We just found a way.”
“The shots will fall,” Sleva said. “We’re all confident in our shots and were in the gym too much for them not to fall. When you’re a shooting team you’re not going to make every three you take, but we will find our rhythm and be fine.”
The Raiders relied heavily on Sleva in the second half, who scored 24 of his 30 points in the second half and overtime on 7-of-11 shooting.
“He stepped up and carried us. He played like the leader that he is,” Fite said. “His play carried us along but he was also very vocal in encouraging our guys and not letting anybody not believe. I’m really pleased that we went through it and came out on the right side of it.”
Both teams heated up in the second half in what was a true back-and-forth contest, especially in the overtime period. With 56 seconds remaining in overtime, SU held a six-point lead before the teams began trading shots.
The Panthers’ James Paige hit three 3-pointers in the last minute alone, but the Raiders cashed in on their free throws, to close out the victory. The Raiders shot 25-of-29 from the charity stripe.
“As bad as we were from three, we were that good from the line and it made all the difference in the game,” Fite said.
Sleva finished the game with 30 points and 15 rebounds, and was named the Wolf’s Bus Lines Classic MVP. McCarthur, Kellem and John Castello each scored in double figures in the win. Castello also grabbed 10 rebounds.
Sleva (46 points, 26 rebounds), McCarthur (28 points, six assists) and Conner (19 points, nine assists) were named to the All-Tournament Team.
“I’m really proud of how the guys handled both games this weekend,” Fite said. “I’m sure it didn’t go as smoothly as we hoped it might go. We were coming out here wanting to set the world on fire and it doesn’t work like that.”
The Raiders, 2-0, will begin their conference schedule next weekend with a trip out west to face Slippery Rock University on Friday and Edinboro University on Saturday.