The Golden Rams greatly exceeded expectations in the PSAC Tournament as they defeated top-seeded IUP 54-51 in the semifinals, and came up just short in the championship game, losing to East Stroudsburg 90-85.
The semifinal game against Indiana University of Pennsylvania was an instant classic. IUP (23-5, 19-3) was the number one seed in the PSAC West Division and No. 8 ranked nationally in the latest National Association of Basketball Coaches poll.
IUP had defeated West Chester early in January by eight, but guard Carl Johnson was suspended for that game and he would be a huge difference maker in the rematch. West Chester got off to a slow start missing their first six shots before freshmen Corey Blake made a layup five minutes into the game. Neither team could get into any sort of rhythm offensively in the first half, as both defenses were well prepared and forced the offenses into difficult shots.
The Crimson Hawks held the lead for the entire half, but West Chester hung around and was down eight going into the locker room 26-18.
In the second half, IUP controlled the tempo and slowly built the lead up to as many as 14 with just over 14 minutes to go, but the tide was about to turn. West Chester started to take control and slowly chipped away at that lead, getting it down to one possession after an 11-2 run with just over four minutes remaining. At this point Hollinger Fieldhouse was louder than ever as the student body, which was about 1,000 strong, were yelling at the top of their lungs; sensing, feeling an upset was right around the corner.
Big plays decided this game and the Golden Rams came through with them down the stretch. Forward Lance McDowell started it off by hitting a three from the corner to cut the lead to two.
After two IUP free throws, it was guard Carl Johnson who made a ridiculous and-one to cut the lead to just a single point. IUP hit two more free throws but Johnson was there for the answer as he hit the big three pointer to tie the game at 51.
IUP missed a mid-range jumper and guard Jon Breeden grabbed the defensive rebound. He slowly walked the ball up the court with Coach Blair deciding to put the game in the hands of his reliable point guard and not call a timeout. He waited until there was about four seconds left, took a few steps forward, crossed over and pulled up for an NBA-range three pointer which rattled in with 1.4 seconds remaining. Guard Troy Hockaday knocked the ball away on the inbounds pass and the crowd swarmed around players jumping and celebrating the upset and ensuring that at least one more game will be played in Hollinger this season.
Blake and Johnson led the Golden Rams with 14 points apiece with Blake pulling down a team high 11 rebounds off the bench. McDowell added 10 points and six rebounds. The defense was much better than in the first time these two teams met as they held IUP’s two top scorers to just 32 points shooting 39% from the field, compared to the first meeting in which they scored 42 points on 56% shooting.
If they were expecting the same kind of game in the championship, they were greatly disappointed. In contrast to the last game in which both teams had plenty of time to prepare and watch film, the championship was the day after the semis so neither team had much time to prepare or rest up. As much as the defenses controlled the game against IUP, it was the offenses trading punches in the championship. The two teams split the regular season matchups, each winning on their home floor.
West Chester got off to a fast start jumping out to a quick 9-4 lead. The Golden Rams handled the full-court press of the Warriors very well in the first half, but that would not continue on for the full 40 minutes. The first half was like two heavyweight champions trading punches, one winning one round, then the other winning the next round, and continuing to go back and forth. East Stroudsburg went on an 11-0 run to take its first lead of the contest 28-27.
They didn’t have much time to enjoy being in front, as West Chester responded with a 7-0 run of its own to go up by six, 34-28. The Warriors let everyone know that they weren’t going to be intimidated by the Rams, or by fans who had packed Hollinger unlike I have ever seen it before, as they responded scoring seven straight to take the lead back, 35-34. Once again, West Chester had an answer as they used once again a 7-0 run to take the lead and take it with them into halftime 44-39.
In the second half, it was much of the same as the two teams continued to trade baskets with West Chester holding onto the lead until ESU snagged it at 57-56 with 13:30 remaining in the game. The Warriors made some adjustments to their full court press in the locker room, and it created some problems for the Golden Rams as they committed a few crucial turnovers which led to easy baskets for ESU. The Golden Rams hung in there though and were right in it until the very end, but the Warriors proved to be just too much for them on this night as East Stroudsburg won the PSAC Championship 90-85.
The scoring was spread out nicely as five Golden Rams reached double figures, led by McDowell’s 18, who also had a team high seven rebounds. Blake had 16 and starting guards Johnson and Breeden had 14 and 11 respectively. Blake and Breeden each dished out team highs in assists with four each. Hockaday had a strong performance off the bench scoring 10 points, and Khalif Foster struggled to stay out of foul trouble, playing only 12 minutes and managing eight points in his final collegiate game.
So with the win, East Stroudsburg gets the automatic bid from the PSAC into the Division II NCAA Tournament which begins next weekend, and leaves West Chester waiting until Sunday night to find out if they managed to grab an at-large bid.
Their odds do not look too good though, as they finished third in the PSAC East, having to most likely win the PSAC tournament in order to get in. If this is the Golden Rams’ final game of the season, then it will also be the final game for seniors McDowell and Foster, but the future looks bright as West Chester looks to bring back three starters next year, as well as their entire bench.
Expectations will be high next year and the team will be motivated to get back to the PSAC championship game, this time being the ones cutting down the nets when the final buzzer sounds.
Riley Wallace is a third-year student at West Chester University. He can be reached at RW718681@wcupa.edu.