It is no secret that Shippensburg University has used a high-powered offense led by a 3-point barrage to find itself on top when the clock hits zero most nights.
On Saturday, it was the SU defense that proved superior, as the Raiders (20-5, 16-4 PSAC) held Mansfield University (6-18, 5-15 PSAC) to just 57 points in its 65-57 win at Heiges Field House in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) East Division matchup.
“I think more than anything we did it on the defensive end,” SU coach Chris Fite said. “I think we had more timely stops and rebounds. Our defense is what won us the game tonight because it was as poor as we’ve played offensively in a while. It was good to get stops to keep ourselves in it and our guys did make plays on the offensive end when we needed to. It was a good win.”
With the win, the Raiders secured their third-straight 20-win season — the team’s fifth in school history and third under Fite.
“It’s tremendous,” Fite said. “Even though we didn’t play our best tonight we were able to come away with a conference win. It’s nice to be able to come away with a win even when you don’t play your best, especially in this conference. For this to be our 20th, that’s an accomplishment they should really be proud of.”
The Raiders struggled to maintain their typical torrid start at home, as SU shot just 38.9 percent for the game, its lowest percentage in PSAC play this season. The Raiders’ John Castello used a strong first half, scoring a team-high 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting including four 3-pointers.
The Mountaineers battled with the Raiders through the game’s first half but were unable to recover from SU’s scoring run to begin the second half. Mansfield shot 49 percent from the field in the game but struggled to get anything going from beyond the arc, shooting just 3-of-13 from 3-point range.
SU was able to close out the game fairly well, getting timely baskets and hitting free-throws when necessary to keep the Mountaineers from pulling off the upset. The Raiders battled foul trouble throughout the game as Castello fouled out in the second half and Dustin Sleva finished the game with four fouls.
“The last few games that has been tricky for us,” Fite said. “Whether we have been in the wrong place at the wrong time or whatever it is, it happens. That’s basketball and it’s a testament to our team that we can have different guys step in and we certainly had some great contributions from the bench tonight to get us over the hump.”
Castello’s effort was key for SU in the win, but the Raiders also had strong contributions from Sleva and Clay Conner, as Sleva tallied 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while Conner dished out seven assists. Conner also hit two free-throws in the final minute to put the game out of reach.
With East Stroudsburg University’s 111-101 victory over West Chester University on Saturday, the Raiders are now tied with the Warriors for first place in the PSAC East.
SU will need to win its next two games against West Chester (20-5, 16-5 PSAC) and Bloomsburg University (14-10, 10-10 PSAC) and have East Stroudsburg (19-5, 16-4 PSAC) lose to Kutztown University on Wednesday in order to ensure that the Raiders win the East and host the final two rounds of the PSAC Tournament.
Home-field advantage would be crucial for SU, as the Raiders are 40-3 at Heiges Fieldhouse in the last three seasons, including 13–0 this year.
The Raiders’ biggest challenge will come on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. against the Golden Rams, as SU travels to Hollinger Fieldhouse to battle West Chester. The Raiders defeated the Golden Rams 93-83 at Heiges Field House on Jan. 20.
“It’s the next one. We’ve been talking about that for months that we need to just take it one game at a time,” Fite said. “Now we’re going to West Chester. They’re a very talented team and I’m sure they will be gunning for us after what happened here, so we need to be ready to play.”