After finding themselves as a bit of an underdog entering the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Tournament on Monday, the Shippensburg University men’s basketball team pushed itself all the way to the PSAC Semifinals.
The defending champions found out on Saturday night why it is so hard to repeat as champions, as Gannon University (22-9) used a sizable advantage on the boards that included 19 offensive rebounds in an 81-70 win over the Raiders (23-7) at East Stroudsburg University’s Koehler Fieldhouse.
“Tonight just wasn’t our night,” SU coach Chris Fite said. “It wasn’t one of our better performances and to Gannon’s credit, they played good basketball. They were hungry and relentless on the glass.”
Dustin Sleva did everything he could to will the Raiders back into the game, finishing with 28 points, including 20 in the second half, while grabbing 12 rebounds for his 56th double-double. It was the 94th time that Sleva recorded double figures in points in a Raider uniform.
In the first half, John Castello led the SU charge, scoring 18 points and establishing himself down low against the Golden Knight frontcourt. Castello capitalized off double teams that Sleva attracted to finish multiple shots around the rim while also knocking down two 3-pointers.
SU trailed 38-34 entering the break before Gannon used a second-half surge to take control of the game. The Golden Knights unleashed a 12-0 run beginning at 18:31 of the second half to give Gannon a 50-38 lead. The Raiders could draw no closer than seven points in the final 10 minutes.
The Golden Knights capitalized with multiple 3-pointers, which was uncharacteristic of the squad that averaged four 3-pointers per game and just one player on the roster who shot 35 percent or better from 3-point range.
Gannon knocked down five of its seven 3-point attempts in the second half, feeding the hot hand of Jair Green, who hit 3-of-6 from 3-point range to finish with 25 points. Evan Phoenix and Zay Jackson finished with 16 and 14 points for the Golden Knights, respectively.
Gannon also received a double-double off the bench from Frank Webb, who scored 12 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
“They had some guys step up and make some big plays for them who don’t normally make those plays,” Fite said. “They did what they needed to win a big situation type game.”
The Golden Knights biggest advantage came on the glass, as SU was outrebounded 47-30 on the night Gannon came into the game as the No. 2 team in the PSAC in rebounding margin — averaging nine more rebounds than their opponents — and used that to its advantage throughout the contest.
While the loss was not what the Raiders were hoping for, it did mark the third straight PSAC Tournament semifinal that SU has advanced to. It is also the third straight season in which SU has won 20 or more games under Fite.
Fite reflected on the difficulty of winning the PSAC Tournament this season, which went down as the toughest field in tournament history, with seven 20-win teams competing in the conference tournament.
“It gives you an appreciation for what these guys were able to accomplish last year,” Fite said. “For us to be in our third consecutive [PSAC] final four and to be in the national and regional discussion, our guys should be nothing but proud of themselves and hold their heads up high.”
In the loss, Sleva became the fourth player in PSAC history to record 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and the first since Jonathan Roberts of East Stroudsburg University accomplished the feat in 1990. Sleva went over the 2,000-point plateau after cleaning up a missed layup with a layup of his own.
When Sleva and the rest of SU’s senior class came to SU, the Raiders were recovering from the lows of a 3-23 season. The Raiders turned the program into a consistent winner under Fite, something that Sleva is especially proud of.
“I was telling Clay [Conner] this the other day,” Sleva said. “We went from ‘Oh Shippensburg, these guys are bums’ to ‘Shippensburg gets all the foul [calls].’ Just that alone means that we came a long way from our first season and where we started off. Coach Fite has been building a culture here.”
Castello, just a sophomore, credited his disappointment by recalling how he won a PSAC title in just his freshman season. Castello mentioned that the team still has hopes to return to the same level of play it achieved last season entering the NCAA Tournament.
“I think I got a little bit spoiled winning a championship in my first year,” Castello said. “It’s pretty easy playing with these guys, so hopefully we can build on that and try to get back to where we were last year.”
The Raiders will now head to Virginia State University to battle West Liberty University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Raiders defeated Virginia Union University in the first round last season before falling to Wheeling Jesuit.
The first round game will be played on Saturday, March 10. Time is still to be determined.