With 2:33 remaining in overtime of the biggest game to date of Dustin Sleva’s life, his killer instinct took over.
Sleva caught the basketball at the top of the key, spun to his right like a running back in open field to blow by Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s (IUP) Devon Cottrell, earning a clear path to the basket to score a layup and draw a foul.
The 6-foot, 8-inch 220-pound junior at the time, had just scored a clutch basket before contributing six of his team’s 12 points in the overtime period of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Tournament Semifinal to give Shippensburg University a 90-87 victory and a ticket to compete for its first title since 1991.
The Raiders returned to the hardwood to take on rival Kutztown University in the 2017 PSAC Championship the next day, defeating the Golden Bears 73-63 on IUP’s court. The Raiders celebrated the incredible feat by cutting down the nets and embracing senior point guard Abe Massaley, who just three years earlier, battled through the lows of a 3-23 season.
“It was a euphoric moment,” Sleva said. “It was surreal that we won it with what happened my freshman year and before that. It kind of was just something where all the pieces fell into place.”
It was equally as fitting for Sleva, a Pittsburgh native, who had an average high school career until his senior year at Montour High School for an above-average team. It was also fitting that IUP, being a school in close proximity to Sleva’s home, did not feel like he fit the mold of the Crimson Hawk program.
“Every team I play I think, did they recruit me? No, so I’m going to play that game with a chip on my shoulder,” Sleva said. “I remember IUP [coaches] being at a high school game of mine and I think I had like six points. I didn’t play that well; the team was doubling me. I remember [SU coach Chris Fite] specifically saying, I know you didn’t score that much but I saw the way you played on defense and offense. You’re not going to have a good night every night. So, I remember that and the IUP coach never talked to me. I put that in my head.”
And the rest is history. That chip on his shoulder carried Sleva throughout his college career after scoring around 500-point career as a Spartan. Sleva helped the Raiders flip the trajectory of the program, while becoming the SU all-time leader in points with 2,071, and rebounds with 1,140 while contributing 334 assists. He also hit 187 3-pointers.
It was not always easy for the SU star, however, who struggled with basketball in high school, where Sleva said coaches pushed him to a breaking point his sophomore year.
“I had good coaches at Montour and they really pushed me, but they pushed me to the brink at times,” he said. “With constant running, the constant pressure, the constant beating from older guys — we were a state championship team and we had a guy that plays at Virginia Tech [now] and others who are high level players, so that year made me realize how hard I had to work.”
Playing in high school as a 5-foot, 10-inch guard, the game was also much different for Sleva on the floor, before a growth spurt leading into his sophomore year of college helped transform Sleva from what he says was an awkward, scrawny point guard, to the dominant All-American forward.
Sleva’s senior year at Montour proved to be enough to get him to college, as most of his success came in his final season, after suffering from injuries in earlier years and growing five inches from his freshman year.
“I had a good year and averaged about 20 points and 10 rebounds, basically my same stats here and I’m only getting recruited by lower Division II schools and prep schools,” Sleva said. “If I wasn’t going to come to Ship, I was going to go to prep. I saw what Coach Fite saw in Shippensburg that really resonates to where we are today, where you had the opportunity with the facilities and the backing with the school. I saw the vision of where Fite was going and where our team could go.”
It was in his sophomore season at SU that the Raiders finally started to experience a turnaround in the program. Coming in after that tough 3-23 season, Sleva learned from the likes of Dylan Edgar and Massaley and their struggles. Under the leadership of the brilliant basketball mind of Fite, the Raiders won 15 of their last 19 games in the 2015-16 season, to earn a spot in the PSAC Semifinals against Mercyhurst University.
The Raiders ultimately fell 79-68, but in advancing to the PSAC Final Four and finishing 20-9, SU had arrived on the scene as a team to be reckoned with, after defeating Bloomsburg University and Kutztown on buzzer-beating shots in back-to-back games.
In 2016-17, the Raiders came into the season looking to build on the success of the past year, but nobody could have expected SU to begin the season on an 18-game winning streak and to climb all the way into the Top 5 of the National Basketball Association Coaches Poll the way that it had.
The team had created national attention, and for the first time in program history, Shippensburg basketball was an Atlantic Region powerhouse, in large part to Sleva, who was leading the team in points and rebounds and becoming a bigger force on the court.
“It was a really good situation for him to be in and grow into. He had some really strong upperclassmen ahead of him,” Fite said. “But in saying that, Dustin’s approach even as an underclassman, was tremendous and he was still one of our leaders, but it certainly set him and [point guard] Clay [Conner] up to step into that role this year as the figureheads and vocal leaders of the group.”
The Raiders rode the momentum of a torrid start to the No. 2 seed in the PSAC East to advance to the conference tournament, where SU caught fire on their way to a matchup with IUP. Sleva put forth one of his best efforts, scoring 33 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the overtime win, before claiming the PSAC title in the next game.
Sleva then led his team into the NCAA Tournament, where the Raiders had never won a game before in school history. Sleva and SU — as they had all season — dominated, putting in a single-game record 18 3-pointers in a 79-59 win over Virginia Union University for SU’s first tournament victory.
“We were playing our best basketball at that time. I felt like we could’ve made it far,” Sleva said. “We had a great game and Wheeling had a great game. I fouled out with four minutes left and it sucked. I felt like we could have gone further, but to lose then and then take it a step further this year made it even better.”
The Raiders fell in their next game against Wheeling Jesuit University, but they had arrived on the national scene and with all of its pieces returning except for Massaley after a school record 27-win season. It was Sleva’s team entering 2017-18, and expectations for the program were sky-high.
SU entered the season ranked No. 8 in all of Division II men’s basketball, with a clear target on its back. SU suffered setbacks early on with losses to Edinboro University and Wilmington University on last second shots.
Advancing once again to the conference tournament hoping to defend their title, the Raiders found themselves in a difficult situation entering the PSAC Tournament. Late losses in the season to Millersville, West Chester and Kutztown put SU in a spot where it was facing a must-win situation at West Chester in the PSAC Quarterfinals.
In the toughest of situations, SU turned to its leader, who had become public enemy No. 1 on the court, after Massaley’s graduation. Talking trash and terrorizing the West Chester band, Sleva returned to the court midway through the first half, lifting his arms for the crowd to make noise, screaming that West Chester did not want to see him in the game.
He was not wrong.
Talking trash and dominating the Golden Rams, Sleva shot an extremely efficient 6-of-7 from the field and 12-of-14 from the free-throw line to score 24 points and lead the Raiders to the PSAC Semifinals.
“I think that the whole process starts at the top with Coach Fite giving him an opportunity to help rebuild the program for what it was to what it is now and putting Dustin in a position to be that guy, to be what he has become,” SU assistant coach Chuck Davis said. “I think he has exceeded all expectations. Just watching the process from his freshman year to his junior year, you see a timid guy who wasn’t as confident and aggressive as he has become.”
While trash talking is not the biggest part of his game, it was something that Sleva adopted as a leader at SU.
“I don’t just do it for me, I do it for my team,” Sleva said. “It sets the tone that we’re not coming in here to get punked by the crowd, or the band, I mean, who cares about their band? I had a fun time heckling them. It was our first time winning at West Chester and it’s such a hard place to win.”
The Raiders lost in the PSAC Semifinals to Gannon University, but advanced to the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight season. The Raiders were matched up against Atlantic Region powerhouse, West Liberty University, where alongside Sleva, senior Justin McCarthur also stole the show in the 98-66 thrashing of the Hilltoppers.
“West Liberty is another one of the schools, where I was 40 minutes away from them in Wheeling, so I put that in my head alright, they didn’t recruit me,” Sleva said. “I already had that chip on my shoulder and I always hear everybody talking so great about them in Pittsburgh because of the way they play and how they shoot the ball so I was thinking alright, whatever. So to completely demolish them and take their heart out of it — you could see their guys on the court not knowing what hit them — that game alone really made the year that we had.”
It marked the second consecutive year that SU had a win in the NCAA Tournament. The Raiders followed up the win with a victory over host Virginia State University before falling to rival East Stroudsburg University to end Sleva’s career and SU’s season in the Sweet 16 — SU’s first Sweet 16 in school history.
Sleva, who leaves SU as the all-time leading scorer — breaking Davis’ scoring record of 1,825 points at Millersville on Feb. 7, reflected on his time at SU and the university that gave him the opportunity after a challenging high school career.
“I’m definitely going to miss my teammates,” Sleva said. “I get a little sad when I talk about it. We live in a house with like seven of us. We all have something going on all day. We all communicate, we talk, we go out together, we play together and I’m with them 24/7. I’m going to miss them a lot. I’m going to miss the family environment of Shippensburg. There are professors that come to our games, there’s teachers, everyone tells me what a great job we’re doing and I think that is huge.”
The star stretched forward, who undoubtedly goes down as the best player that SU has had to date, now changes his focus to improving his game for an opportunity to continue to play basketball overseas, or perhaps, in the NBA if he is lucky.
“You just have to find the right agent. A lot of agents are contacting me. I might get a couple camps and a couple looks and workouts for the NBA and stuff,” Sleva said. “Maybe if I get lucky I can play here in the D league or the G league or whatever. I’m just interested in what it holds, it’s a little overwhelming right now. I have to figure out in the next couple weeks what I’m going to do.”
Sleva along with McCarthur, is currently exploring the option of continuing his basketball career. Fite, who played overseas, has been working with both players to help them take that next step.
“Dustin certainly I believe has a promising career ahead of him and J-Mac I think has some aspirations of trying to play too,” Fite said. “I think the biggest challenge is that both of them basketball wise have the ability to play overseas and to help a team. Some of the bigger challenges don’t have anything to do with basketball. It’s living in a different country, a different culture and sometimes the language barrier. There’s a lot of variables in just day-to-day life.”
Sleva has since signed with Inception Sports, per his Twitter account.
Sleva’s aspirations to continue playing can be easily identified in his willingness to come in and work out on a day where classes were canceled after SU received 14.3 inches of snow on March 22-23. Sleva was still in Heiges Field House at 8 a.m., putting up shots.
“They were both in here today. Our season is over, and their careers are over, and classes are canceled but they are in the gym working out,” Fite said. “That just kind of shows you how they are wired and how much they love the game. It is why they are as good as they’ve been. Their work ethic is tremendous, their consistent approach day in and day out paid dividends.”
With Sleva looking to continue to play the game he loves and having overcome the challenges of rebuilding a program, Dustin leaves as a member of the winningest senior class in SU history with 85 wins.
“If I was at a school and it was a good program, I don’t think it would feel as good as building a culture with me and my teammates,” Sleva said. “I think that having that and not winning a championship in four years, means a lot in winning one and finding something that this team can build upon. If we can build a program that can compete with the top Division II teams, I think we will extend our level of winning and that level of competition. I think that Shippensburg is going to be a great place for basketball.”