Despite a poor night of shooting, the Shippensburg University men’s basketball team out-hustled and out-gritted the Virginia Union Panthers to open its 2018-2019 campaign with a 65–60 victory.
Virginia Union had surged ahead midway through the second half thanks to a 28-13 run when SU’s starting center, senior Manny Span, checked back into the game.
On three consecutive possessions, Span ate the Panthers alive in the paint, bullying VU’s interior defenders for two baskets in a row and then grabbing a huge offensive rebound and putting it back up and into the basket, cutting the Raiders’ deficit in half from eight points to just four.
From that point on, SU put its foot on the gas. The Raiders slowly chipped the Panthers’ lead to fewer and fewer points before knotting the score at 52-52 as a packed Heiges Field House crowd roared in support.
Shots had not been falling for Shippensburg the whole night, but the Raiders wanted it more and were not going to let VU steal a victory.
With the game tied at 54-54 and the clock quickly approaching the two-minute mark — another one of the Raiders’ seasoned veterans — junior power forward John Castello, came up big in the clutch to keep Shippensburg afloat.
After knocking down two free throws, Castello hit a one-handed floater to put the Raiders ahead by one. SU forced the Panthers into a turnover on defense, and sophomore point guard Jake Biss found Castello wide open in the corner on the other end for a three-point basket that hit nothing but net, giving the Raiders a five-point lead with just over a minute left, sending the crowd and the Shippensburg bench into a frenzy.
Castello finished the game tied for the team-high in points with 16 on the night and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds and three steals.
“It’s awesome, our chemistry is just mixing great,” Castello said. “We have seven new guys who came in and it already feels like we’ve been playing together for a while. So it starts there, it starts with the teams and the coaches. And then the fans were awesome tonight, we had a great outing for the first game of the year and you can just feed off of that. The crowd is loud, your teammates are jumping up and down off the bench, you just feed off that stuff.”
Junior Lamar Talley, who knocked down a trio of three-pointers for the Raiders in the first half, went to the line with eight seconds left and the SU lead hovering at three points. Talley took a deep breath before stepping up to the free throw line and knocking down both free throws, all but icing the game.
“The guys stepped up. It was going to be one of those nights where you just need somebody, especially going against the zone. The ball moves around and somebody has to attack it and make a play or create a look for someone else,” SU coach Chris Fite said. “Fortunately, our upperclassmen, the guys who have been on the block a little bit, managed to settle themselves and make the plays when we needed it.”
In an attempt to break the stout Virginia Union zone defense they were facing, the Raiders opted to launch a long-range assault on the Panthers.
In the first half alone, Shippensburg attempted 24 three-pointers, more than Virginia Union would attempt the entire game. Despite getting plenty of good open looks, the Raiders only knocked down five of those 24 three-point shots and shot 27.0 percent from the floor in the first.
Fite said he was happy with the looks his team was getting, despite the poor shooting numbers on the night.
“I mean, we were generating good looks,” Fite said. “There were some stretches in the second half where we didn’t generate the looks we liked. And we did the same thing when we played these guys last year. We had a real poor shooting night, their zone is a real hard thing to get comfortable with and that’s a really good team.”
The basket opened up for the Raiders in the second half, as they once again attacked the Panthers’ zone, hitting five more three-points on only 14 attempts.
Senior Antonio Kellem, who struggled from the floor, finished the game with 12 points, enough to push him over the 1,000-point mark for his career. One of the leading players remaining on the squad, Kellem is a big piece in the team’s plans.
“I think it’s just something that you learn from,” Kellem said of the team’s poor shooting night. “You’re going to have close, tight games, games where you’re not shooting well, and I think this was a learning experience for us for sure. But the 1,000 point thing, it’s nice to have, but at the same time, the win was more important and I think we played really well even with the poor shooting.”