The Shippensburg University men’s basketball team’s longest postseason run in school history came to an end on Tuesday night, as the Raiders dropped an 84-72 game to East Stroudsburg University at the Virginia State Multi-Purpose Center in the Atlantic Region Final of the NCAA Tournament.
The Raiders (25-8) survived a first half of foul trouble that sent sophomore John Castello and senior point guard Clay Conner to the bench. SU only trailed 37-34 at halftime, but SU was unable to withstand a strong offensive second half by the Warriors (27-5) who shot 59 percent.
“It was a tough night,” SU coach Chris Fite said. “I’m proud of the way our guys competed, it was a back-and-forth type of game. We never seemed to get settled into any sort of flow. Credit to East Stroudsburg, they tend to make you play like that sometimes and they had some guys step up when they needed it. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys, it’s been a privilege to coach this group and I’m disappointed that the season has come to an end.”
The Raiders and Warriors were tied with 4:52 remaining, but East Stroudsburg closed the game on a 17-5 run to win its first regional championship in school history. It was the third meeting between the teams, with each team winning on their home floor this season.
The Raiders struggled at times in the first half, falling behind after the Warriors unleashed a 14-4 run as SU was held without a point from the floor in almost five minutes, but still only trailed by three at the break.
It was a tremendous night for Manny Span who came off the bench to score 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, along with grabbing five rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes. Span’s play was huge for SU in keeping with East Stroudsburg, as he hit back-to-back layups and a pair of free throws to unleash an 8-0 SU run to halt the Warrior run in the first half.
Overall, it was a tough shooting night for the Raiders from behind the arc, as they shot just 29 percent from 3-point range to tie a season low with six 3-pointers.
The Warriors received 48 points from their bench in the win, including a career night from Josh Williams, who led East Stroudsburg with 16 points and eight rebounds.
With the loss, the careers of the winningest senior class in SU history that features Dustin Sleva, Justin McCarthur and Conner came to an end. The group combined for 4,332 points, 1,534 rebounds, 574 3-pointers and 1,028 free throws. The class recorded an overall record of 85-35 for their career.
McCarthur led the way for SU in each of the tournament games, scoring a game-high 20 points including 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range with seven assists — one shy of his career high. In three games, McCarthur scored 74 points, made 16-of-24 3-pointers and shot 58 percent from the field with 14 assists.
Sleva finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists and was also named to the Atlantic Region All-Tournament team along with McCarthur, as he scored 54 points, grabbed 33 rebounds and shot 50 percent from the field with 14 assists.
Conner scored nine points with two assists and no turnovers. He was also 5-of-5 at the free-throw line.
It was an excellent season and career for Sleva, who leaves the program as the best player to ever wear a Raider uniform. Sleva finished his career as SU’s all-time leading scorer with 2,071 points, which is good enough for eighth in PSAC history. Sleva is also SU’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,140 rebounds, good enough for 10th in PSAC history. He is SU’s all-time leader in double-doubles with 58.
Sleva broke his own record for points in a season this year, finishing with 706 points, while also winning the PSAC East Player of the Year Award in back-to-back seasons.
After the game, Sleva reflected on what has been a record-breaking career.
“It’s disappointing. We had a long year with Spain and everything and I appreciate Coach Fite and Coach Gembe giving me an opportunity when a lot of others wouldn’t,” Sleva said. “Coming here and changing the culture will always be special to me. Shippensburg is a special place for me. I saw Coach Fite’s vision and having him offer me, means the world to me.”
McCarthur finishes his career as SU’s all-time leader in 3-pointers with 291 to put himself in ninth in conference history. McCarthur also holds records for the most 3-pointers in a season with 101, and a pair of single-game records including 3-point accuracy and makes in a single game when he went 9-of-9 from deep against East Stroudsburg earlier this season. He also finished 15-of-15 from the free-throw line against Bloomsburg to set another single-game record.
McCarthur leaves totaling 1,650 points, which puts him in fourth in SU history. The 3,721 points between Sleva and McCarthur makes them one of the Top 5 pairs of highest-scoring teammates in league history.
McCarthur reflected on the resiliency of the team postgame.
“I’m just glad that we stayed together through the course of the season,” McCarthur said. “There were times that were really challenging where we could have packed it in, but I think this whole year we just always responded. It just shows the character of everyone on this team and how we wanted to do something great for the school.”
Conner finishes his career with 611 points, 285 assists, 96 3-pointers and a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Starting all 33 games for SU this season, he set single-season bests for points (277), assists (151), 3-pointers (49) and rebounds (60).
Conner said playing for SU had been an incredible experience, mentioning friendships with teammates that will last a lifetime.
“Playing here at Ship has been amazing,” Conner said. “From the university as a whole, to the amount of support we have received and stuff like that. To play for this team and this coaching staff has been special. The bond that I have with these guys will last me the rest of my life and you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Fite also reflected on his senior class.
“I’m so proud of the character of this group,” Fite said. “We have a classy bunch and as a coach, I will hold my head high for this group and the university should as well. They are great young men. Not only for what they do on the court, but they are great people. It’s been a privilege to coach this group and Ship should be proud.”
For the Raiders, SU holds its head high after advancing to the Sweet 16, something that had never been done before in program history.
The Raiders’ postseason run included two incredibly-dominant victories, with a win over national powerhouse West Liberty University and the No. 1 seed in the region in Virginia State University. SU never trailed in the NCAA Tournament until East Stroudsburg took a 9-8 lead with 13:47 left in the first half.
While SU left the season disappointed, the seniors helped to build a winning culture, leading SU to three-straight 20-win seasons after SU only accomplished the feat twice prior to the senior class arriving.
“Eventually these guys will appreciate what they have accomplished, I know now it still stings,” Fite said. “It’s been a great journey and that is kind of what athletics is about. The unity, the brotherhood, the highs, the lows and the experiences you share. I wouldn’t have wanted to go through it with any other group and it’s been a great year.’
“You like to end it on a win and I know we are good enough that maybe we could’ve. We have shown we can play with anyone in the country, but tonight just wasn’t our night.”