Hot starts have been a calling card for the Shippensburg University men’s basketball team in some of its biggest triumphs this season and on Sunday inside a hostile Virginia State University Multi-Purpose Center, the Raiders were able to showcase that, grabbing an early 11-point lead on their way to a 77-58 win over No. 1 seed Virginia State on its home floor in the Atlantic Region Semifinal of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
The Raiders (25-7) received another sensational performance from their sharpshooting senior Justin McCarthur, as he once again led the Raiders in scoring, tallying a game-high 21 points including a 5-of-8 shooting mark from 3-point range.
The Raiders as a team shot incredibly well from behind the arc against the nation’s leader in 3-point defense in Virginia State (25-5), as SU hit nine of its 20 shots from deep.
“We knew Virginia State was going to be tough defensively in the little bit of film we watched on them,” SU coach Chris Fite said. “With the background info we had, we knew we were going to have to work for everything we got, but it’s nice when the outside shots are going down.”
The start was just what SU had hoped for and McCarthur eluded to the importance of having a blistering start to be able to advance in the tournament.
“Getting off to a good start is going to be key to winning games in this tournament,” McCarthur said. “I feel like if we can play good enough and get out to a good start, we can really control the game.”
The Raiders built an early 14-3 lead, beginning the game with a two-handed dunk by sophomore John Castello to energize the team. Junior Antonio Kellem quickly took over in the first half, scoring 13 points to lead SU. Kellem finished the night with 19 points, six rebounds and two assists.
“It’s everyone down the line, it’s not just one person,” Kellem said. “The bench is really key for us in keeping our energy up throughout the game and we do a good job of communicating and talking out on the court to stay focused. That [focus] has been its best that it has been this whole season, and if we can continue that, we can really go far.”
All-American senior Dustin Sleva, like McCarthur, picked up where he left off on Saturday night, scoring 16 points and grabbing 14 rebounds for the 58th double-double of his career, despite being in foul trouble for the majority of the final 10 minutes with four fouls.
As a team, SU shot 50 percent in the first half and went into the locker room with a 37-29 advantage. The Raiders never trailed in the game, despite multiple 5-0 runs by the Trojans in the first half.
Virginia State had a key swing of momentum in the first half with SU leading 31-27, where the Trojans’ Cyonte Melvin tipped and stole a pass intended for McCarthur and dunked the ball in transition, exciting a large Virginia State crowd.
Sleva was quick to answer, knocking down multiple contested lay-ups before halftime.
The Raiders wasted no time putting the game out of reach in the second half, as McCarthur took over the game in a four-minute stretch in which he scored 10 of SU’s 14 points on a 14-0 run to give SU a 62-37 lead and seal the victory.
The SU bench came alive during McCarthur’s stretch, clearly fired up by his play. The Raiders carried the momentum with two alley-oops from McCarthur to Kellem, that showcased a pretty passing ability on the lob from McCarthur.
For Kellem, the play was all in good fun.
“A lot of people are making fun of me because I haven’t had a dunk in a while,” Kellem said laughing. “J-Mac gave me a good lob, but at the end of the day, it is just about playing hard and when the plays are there you take advantage of it.”
For the Raiders, the box score showcased their greatest strengths, as SU shot 45 percent from 3-point range, knocked down 18-of-21 free-throw attempts, while also adding 18 assists and posting a 33-24 advantage on the glass.
“That’s our thing. We put certain goals before each game defensively and offensively and talk about sharing the ball, rebounding and having fun. They’ve been doing it all,” Fite said. “We said early on in the year when we had some big conference wins that when we’re playing with high energy and playing with the confidence level that we have, and are sharing the basketball and picking one another up, we’re as good as anyone in the country. We’ve shown that to an extent the last couple nights.”
The Trojans began the game 12-of-12 at the free-throw line, which was uncharacteristic of the squad that ranks 301st in the nation in free-throw shooting. Virginia State finished 14-of-15 (93 percent) at the line while SU shot 86 percent from the charity stripe.
As a unit, the SU defense was elite once again, holding the Trojans to just 58 points, including 37 percent shooting and just a 2-of-18 mark from 3-point range. Richard Granberry led Virginia State with 16 points while Trey Brown had 12 points and both 3-pointers for the Trojans.
SU senior guard Clay Conner had another superb game, scoring 11 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the charity stripe to go along with five assists, while helping the Raiders withstand a tough full-court press in the final five minutes of play. Reserve forward Manny Span also played an integral role on defense with Castello and Sleva being in foul trouble at times.
With the win, SU advances to its first-ever Sweet 16 appearance in school history. Entering the 2016-17 season, the Raiders had never won an NCAA Tournament game, but are now 3-1 in their last four NCAA Tournament games. The Raiders are also two wins shy of the school record of 27 wins they set last season.
In SU’s last two games in the NCAA Tournament, the message from the coaching staff has been to execute the game plan, enjoy it and to have fun.
“We had it written down multiple places on the board the last couple games. We want the guys to have fun,” Fite said. “We worked really hard to get ourselves into this position and there’s not a lot of teams left. This is the type of opportunity that kids want to be in and it’s what you play for. You’ve got to enjoy it. Our guys are playing with a lot of confidence and joy right now and supporting one another. It’s a fun group to coach.”
It is safe to say that things have been fun for the Raiders the past few seasons, as they are 67-15 in their last 82 games under Fite dating back to December of 2015.
The Raiders will face Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) East Division rival East Stroudsburg University in the Atlantic Region final with a ticket to the Elite Eight in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on the line. The Warriors (26-5) advanced to the Atlantic Region final after defeating the Golden Rams 90-76, using a tremendous second half to knock off PSAC East foe West Chester University.
The Warriors won the PSAC Championship on March 4 against Gannon University. The Raiders and Warriors meeting is the third of the season between the teams, with both teams winning on their home court.
East Stroudsburg defeated SU 90-79 on Jan. 3 at Koehler Fieldhouse, while SU defeated East Stroudsburg 89-64 on Jan. 31 at Heiges Field House. The Warriors enter the game riding a 12-game win streak with the Raiders handing them their last loss in that Jan. 31 matchup.
The Atlantic Region final will be held at host Virginia State’s Multi-Purpose Center on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.