The Shippensburg University men’s basketball team is advancing to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championship game for the first time since the 2016-17 season. The Raiders (24-6, 18-4 PSAC) defeated Mercyhurst University in a defensive battle, 59-51, in the PSAC Semifinals on Saturday at Heiges Field House.
Mercyhurst came into the game as the best defense in the PSAC, limiting opponents to just 63.1 points per game. Therefore, it would not come as a surprise to see that this matchup proved to be a defensive battle.
The first points were not scored until Michael Bradley knocked down a jumper from in the paint, with 16:43 remaining in the first half,
The Raiders slugged it out with Mercyhurst throughout the first half, heading into halftime with a 25-24 lead despite shooting the ball only 29.4% from the field.
SU head coach Chris Fite believed the Raiders were taking good, high-quality shots in the first half, and his halftime speech included a message to stay aggressive because the shots will eventually start falling.
Fite was right, more shots began falling for the Raiders throughout the second half. The offense began clicking behind solid contributions from throughout the roster. SU shot the ball 46.2% from the field in the second half, resulting in 34 second-half points.
It was not until midway through the second half that the Raiders had extended their lead to multiple possessions due to some key shots from junior Kiyon Hardy and redshirt sophomore Dom Sleva.
The Raiders went on to win the game by eight points due mostly to an excellent defensive effort combined with the team’s tough, grind-it-out mentality.
“We said that, both prior to the game and early on in the game, nothing is going to come easy,” Fite said. “Offensively, especially, we’re going to have some dysfunctional possessions and some turnovers. Defensively, we’re going to give up some buckets and we just had to keep that mindset that we can’t allow our energy to drop and we have to maintain a certain level of intensity and toughness throughout. I thought our guys really did a great job with that.”
The Raiders’ resiliency has been one of the team’s calling cards throughout this season, and it showed up in a big way on Saturday.
One of the keys for the Raiders on Saturday was winning the rebounding battle. SU outrebounded Mercyhurst 44-29, including a 16-6 advantage in offensive rebounding. Senior John Castello led the team with 12 rebounds, including six offensive rebounds.
The Raiders’ rebounding advantage was critical against Mercyhurst because it allowed the offense multiple extra opportunities to get things going. SU scored 17 second-chance points as they capitalized on those extra chances they received throughout the game to boost their struggling offense.
Sophomore Carlos Carter, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds, did a good job providing energy for the Raiders throughout the win over Mercyhurst. Whether it was making a key defensive play or converting an and-one opportunity, he was the man who gave Shippensburg a jolt of energy whenever the team needed it on Saturday.
The Raiders will face Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) in the PSAC Finals on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Heiges Field House.
“They’re the cream of the crop – they have been for years. I couldn’t have more respect than what I have for Coach [Joe] Lombardi,” Fite said. “He’s a mentor, and you always know when you play his teams that they are going to be prepared. It’s exciting for us to be on that stage and to have a chance to compete with one of the best teams. We like to believe we are in the mix too. We’re excited to take our shot and see where the chips fall.”
The Raiders defeated IUP (27-2, 20-2 PSAC) earlier this season, 69-66. It will be interesting to see how these two teams match up in their second matchup of the season.
IUP’s two top scorers are redshirt sophomore Armoni Foster and senior Malik Miller. Foster is fourth in the PSAC in points per game (19.9) and he shoots 49.6% from the field. Miller averages 18.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
IUP is a well-rounded team, something which helps make them one of the best teams in the PSAC. They have the second-ranked offense (84.7 points per game) and the second-ranked defense (65.6 points allowed per game).
The Raiders meet with IUP for the second time this season in the PSAC Championship game today at 3 p.m. Stay tuned to theslateonline.com for coverage of the PSAC Championship game.