The Shippensburg University men’s basketball team left the court last Saturday with a lump in their throats. Clearly disappointed after coming just up short in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Semifinals, the Raiders were hoping for a chance to continue playing.
SU (24-7) took full advantage of the opportunity when it came on Saturday night, demolishing Atlantic Region powerhouse West Liberty University, 98-66, in the Atlantic Region Quarterfinals of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at host Virginia State University’s Multi-Purpose Center.
The Raiders used a torrid start and a tremendous defensive effort to hold the nation’s leading scoring team — West Liberty (26-4) entered the contest averaging 106.6 points per game — 40 points below its average Saturday. The Raiders also shot the lights out, shooting 58 percent on the night, including 48 percent from 3-point range.
“What a game,” SU coach Chris Fite said. “I’m really proud of the way we played. I’m really proud of our resilience and our toughness and the way we have weathered some things and to come out and have a performance like this on the big stage says a lot about these guys and says a lot about these seniors. I don’t know that West Liberty has been held to 66 points in a game ever, let alone this year. Our defense was tremendous, and we rebounded well. I hope that we can carry it through to tomorrow.”
SU received a historic night from senior captains Justin McCarthur and Dustin Sleva, as McCarthur recovered from a tough 1-for-10 shooting night in the PSAC Semifinals by knocking down seven of his 10 shots from 3-point range Saturday. McCarthur finished with a game-high 33 points, while Sleva scored 20 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out six assists.
The Raiders used an 11-2 run in the first six minutes before holding a 21-12 lead at the midway point of the first half. SU then put together a 17-5 run to extend the lead to 38-20 with 5:30 left in the frame. SU held a 45-33 halftime advantage.
“We knew we had to get off to a good start in this game and I think the start really set the tone for how the rest of the game would go for us,” McCarthur said. “I think we played a full 40 minutes and played the best game offensively and defensively of the year.”
After finishing the first half on fire, the Raiders picked up where they left off, using a quick 9-0 scoring run to begin the second half to extend the lead back to 20 points. SU led by 16 points or more the rest of the night.
Coming into the game, West Liberty was ranked No. 12 in the country, in large part because of a scorching-hot offense that put up 100 or more points in 20 of its 29 games. The Hilltoppers were ranked No. 12 in all of Division II basketball and had accumulated more wins (272) in this decade than any other men’s basketball program across all three divisions entering Saturday’s contest.
West Liberty’s leading scorer, graduate guard Dan Monteroso, was held to just 17 points and six assists. The Hilltoppers’ sharpshooter, Dalton Bolon, finished the night with just two points, despite averaging three or more 3-pointers per contest.
The Raiders contained a typical sharpshooting team by smothering them on the perimeter and crashing the boards, using a mismatch in height to their advantage. SU posted a 36-17 advantage on rebounds in the game and scored 98 points on a season-high 23 assists.
“We had a great week of preparation. We had a lot of energy all week,” Fite said. “We watched a lot of film and we were really locked in to what their strengths were and what we wanted to take them out. Every detail of the scouting report that we talked about, our guys were on it.”
With the rebounding edge clearly being a point of emphasis for SU, Sleva was able to have an excellent night snagging rebounds, as his 12 rebounds broke the SU all-time record for career rebounds, placing Sleva in sole possession of first place in SU history for points scored and total rebounds. Sleva now has 2,037 points and 1,119 rebounds to go along with 326 assists.
“John and I are usually the ones who get the rebounds, but it is a team effort,” Sleva said. “We had guys boxing people out and everyone got their guy. We really put an emphasis on boxing them out. They like to crash the glass and they get a lot of easy looks that way.”
With McCarthur’s 33 points, he moved into the Top 5 on SU’s all-time scoring list, passing Ken Miller (1,606 points from 1962-66). While shooting 70 percent from 3-point range, McCarthur also shot 10-of-11 from the free-throw line, including a four-point play in the second half. McCarthur now has 1,609 points for his career.
SU also received strong contributions from the rest of its starters, as Antonio Kellem scored 13 points, including three 3-pointers, while Clay Conner and John Castello each had eight points. The SU bench combined for 16 points in the win, with Manny Span, Jake Biss, Lamar Talley Na’Quan Council and Daylon Carter rounding out the scoring.
With the Raiders’ first 3-pointer of the night, the team broke the school season-record of 317 3-pointers that it set last season. The Raiders shot 13-of-27 from 3-point range on the night.
SU also won a game in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history, as the Raiders improved to 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament all-time.
The Raiders will now turn their attention to the host, Virginia State University, who advanced to the second round of the tournament by upending CIAA rival Virginia Union University 81-76 during the 5 p.m. game Saturday. Virginia State demonstrated a strong ability for making the extra pass and an uncanny ability to shoot from outside, finishing the night with 24 assists and a 10-of-22 shooting mark from deep.
“We’ve put ourselves in a great position and its certainly going to be a challenge with a great atmosphere,” Fite said. “I think our guys thrive in those situations, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Virginia State (26-4) will host SU in the second game, following a matchup between West Chester University and East Stroudsburg University. With the Raiders advancing to the second round, three of the four remaining teams are from the PSAC East Division. East Stroudsburg University won the conference title over Gannon University last Sunday.
SU and Virginia State will tipoff at 7:30 p.m. Sunday night at the Virginia State University Multi-Purpose Center.
“For this senior class, for them to be in this situation, hopefully they can put together a run and do something special,” Fite said. “We have talked each year about taking that next step and raising the bar and going a step farther. We have an opportunity to continue to break new ground.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the Raiders shot 13-of-27 from 3-point range on the night and not 10-of-22 like previously published.