With the holiday season upon us, Shippensburg University men's basketball coach Chris Fite has plenty to be thankful for. Fresh off a quality win against the Wilmington Wildcats, the Raiders enter the Thanksgiving break with a 4-0 record, thanks to stellar starts to the season by senior guard Antonio Kellem and junior forward John Castello.
“I feel great. I mean for us to be 4-0, we’ve beaten a couple of pretty good teams and we’re going into Thanksgiving break undefeated,” Fite said. “For a team that has a lot of new pieces and a lot of guys in new roles that they’re not as accustomed to, it's nice that we’re finding ways to win right now as we grow and evolve and develop our identity. We just have to keep working and challenging ourselves and I think we could be a pretty good team this year.”
When the Wildcats and Raiders matched up last season, Wilmington came away with the upset victory against 15th-ranked SU on a last-second three-pointer. In that loss, Kellem knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer that would have given Shippensburg the win, but the referees waved the basket off, ruling that the ball was still in the guard’s hands when the clock ran out.
But this year, Kellem showed the Wildcats that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, dicing up the Wilmington defense for a cool 24 points on an efficient 10-18 shooting clip from the floor.
“I think last year definitely kind of stung us a little bit. We have a lot of new guys this year but the guys that were here last year definitely had that urge to want to come out here and play hard,” Kellem said. “When we got after it, it was really fun to kind of give them a win and see how it felt for them.”
The Wildcats hung around in the first half of the game, knocking down 7-15 three-pointers and looking like they would go into the half with a one-point lead. But the momentum shifted completely when sophomore point guard Jake Biss pushed the tempo with six seconds left on the clock after a Wilmington miss. Biss raced down the floor with the clock ticking down, pulling up from deep at the very last second to nail a buzzer-beating three-pointer to put the Raiders up by two going into the half.
Biss, who ended the game with 12 points on 5-10 shooting, had a good night on offense, but his defensive performance was an integral part of the Raiders’ victory. Fite knew that containing Wilmington’s leading scorer Jermaine Head — who came into the matchup averaging around 25 points per game — would be crucial if the Raiders wanted to extend their winning streak.
“That was one of the keys going in,” Fite said. “Jake did a tremendous job on him and we had some different things where there were some times where we were double-teaming Head just to get the ball out of his hands and so it was a collective effort.”
SU ended up holding Head — who was primarily guarded by Biss for the majority of the game — to just eight points on 4-11 shooting, and also managed to clamp down on Wilmington’s second-leading scorer Tyler Norwood, holding him to 10 points on 4-12 shooting.
Despite their roster’s lack of height, the Raiders have been formidable on the glass to open the season. SU bullied the Wildcats in the rebounding department, out-rebounding Wilmington 49-19 while grabbing 16 offensive boards, which in turn led to 16 second-chance points.
“It’s a mindset,” Fite said of his team’s rebounding dominance. “And we talk about it a lot in practice, as far as being disciplined with our boxouts but also being very persistent and pursuing the basketball. We make up for what we lack in height in toughness, execution and in determination as far as those guys just working on the glass and not being denied.”
Leading the Raiders in rebounds was redshirt-freshman forward Dom Sleva, who pulled down 13 rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench, including four offensive boards. Sleva netted the first double-double of his career, knocking down 5-10 shots on his way to 11 points.
“He’s tough, he’s tough,” Fite said. “We have some very good freshman, guys who we feel can really help us. So it was nice to see Dom have a break-out game tonight, but he didn’t do anything tonight different from what he does every day in practice. He works his tail off and I think that’s the key to the success that he’s had up to this point and it’ll be why he’s a great player at the college level because he really is dedicated to being the best he can be.”
The Raiders will next take on California University of Pennsylvania away from home today. Tip-off is at 3 p.m.