The Shippensburg University men’s basketball team has made huge strides in the past three seasons.
In fact, the Raiders (23-6) are still accomplishing firsts, as SU defeated the West Chester University Golden Rams 87-79 on Wednesday night at Hollinger Fieldhouse — the Raiders’ first win in eight seasons at West Chester (21-6) — in the quarterfinals of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Tournament. It was the first win on the road at West Chester for SU coach Chris Fite.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” Fite said. “We’ve won in some tough places in the past, but for them to come out here given the circumstances and play the way we did in a gritty game and control it. We led from the beginning and we were tough on the defensive end. It was a total team effort.”
SU’s star-studded lineup shined on the big stage, as All-American forward Dustin Sleva embraced a hostile environment, that included jeers from everyone in attendance by taunting the band and Golden Rams fans alike, in arguably one of his best performances of the year. Sleva finished with 24 points on 6-of-7 shooting, while also going 12-of-14 from the free-throw line.
Antonio Kellem was clutch for the Raiders as well, dropping in a season-high 21 points — a performance that is four points shy of his career-high of 25 points — in the victory. Kellem knocked down three 3-pointers on the night. Senior guard Clay Conner was also sensational, dropping in 17 points.
“Playing here with the band and everything, the environment is crazy,” Kellem said. “This is the type of playoff game you want to have. Staying calm, cool and collective is really a motto for us. Even in watching film, we don’t get too hyped about turnovers or things like that, we just want to move on to the next play. Being calm was really a key point.”
From the opening possession, Sleva set the tempo, knocking down a free-throw line jumper, before proceeding to run down the court, clearly fired up and ready to play.
That focus and mindset of being able to be the best is exactly what SU needed, after coming into the game needing a win if it hoped to get back to the NCAA Tournament, as SU entered the game as the No. 7 seed in the Atlantic Region. The Top 8 teams in each region make the tournament.
“It is absolutely a factor,” Fite said. “The chemistry of this team and our support and energy across the board is tremendous night in and night out. When you go into a situation like this, we always talk about defense and family being key. Being able to stay together and rally for each other and to have each other’s backs and tonight was a good example of that. We were tremendous.”
The Raiders found themselves trailing with 6:11 left to play in the opening half, but a 14-0 scoring that run that began with a 3-pointer by Kellem turned a four-point deficit into a 33-23 lead. SU led 37-29 at the break.
In the opening minutes of the second half, SU’s John Castello recovered a loose ball at mid-court and attempted a dunk in transition, before he was hit hard by Frank Rokins who attempted to block him on the shot, sending Castello hard to ground.
While Castello was lying on the court, West Chester hit a 3-pointer in transition to draw within three points.
After the media timeout, Sleva inspired his teammates in the huddle, as the Raiders responded with an 8-1 run to take a 10-point lead with 15:18 remaining. Castello later returned.
SU pushed its lead to 14 points, but West Chester refused to go away. Clutch shots by SU continued to allow the Raiders breathing room however, as a huge 3-pointer by Kellem kept West Chester from getting any closer than 10 points. Justin McCarthur shut the door with an and-1 on a layup in the final 70 seconds.
The Raiders had lost nine- straight games at Hollinger Fieldhouse entering the game, including eight loses to West Chester and a loss to Mercyhurst University in the 2016 PSAC Tournament Semifinals. The win was SU’s first road win at West Chester since Feb. 3, 2010.
SU also used a strong free-throw night to dispatch the Golden Rams, as SU hit 29-of-34 (85.3 percent) shots from the charity stripe. SU currently leads the nation in free-throw percentage, as it shoots 80.6 percent from the line.
For West Chester, every player that scored for them reached double figures, while Tyrell Long led the Golden Rams with 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Jackson Hyland added 22 points.
With the win, SU advances to the PSAC Semifinals for the third-straight season as it will face Gannon University at host East Stroudsburg University. The Raiders defeated the Golden Knights in their first matchup, 65-48, at Heiges Field House on Dec. 2.
“To get a road win here in one of the hardest places to play in the PSAC is huge,” Sleva said. “We’re going to continue to ride that confidence through the tournament.”
The Raiders and Golden Knights (21-8) will tipoff at 7 p.m. at East Stroudsburg on March 3. The game will be broadcast live on WSYC 88.7 FM and can be streamed live on the WSYC app. The game will also be live on the PSAC network.