For the second straight season, the Mercyhurst Lakers men’s basketball team made program history. Last season,they appeared in their first ever NCAA tournament game. This season, they won their first ever PSAC championship.
After being down by as much as 11 points in the first half, the Lakers roared back in the second half to knock off the host West Chester Golden Rams 70-67, securing that coveted PSAC championship.
“This team never stops playing,” said Mercyhurst head coach Gary Manchel. “We’ve had deficits, blowouts, close games, and they never stop playing. That is a pleasure to coach kids like that and I could not be more proud of them.”
This conference title gives Mercyhurst the automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament. After not being ranked in the most recent regional rankings, the Lakers basically needed to win the PSAC tournament to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.
The game started out eerily similar like the semifinal matchup did for the Lakers a day before. The Lakers top ranked defense was getting pounded early by the speed of the Golden Rams offense. West Chester shot 69 percent in the first half while making seven three-pointers. The Lakers chipped away at their deficit late in the first half making it a one-point gane with just a under minute to go in the half.
That hard work and momentum for the Lakers seemed to be smashed after PSAC east freshman of the year, Malik Jackson, drained back to back three-pointers to give the Golden Rams a seven-point lead at halftime.
“I thought the in first half we had some jitters,” Manchel said. ” We weren’t playing our style of basketball and the rate they shot at with the amount of points they scored was very unusual for us.”
West Chester came out on the attack immediately in the second half and maintained their lead for the first four minutes. Then, the red-hot offense went ice cold. The Golden Rams went over 10 minutes without a field goal, allowing the Lakers to come back and take the lead with 9:08 left.
“We started forcing some shots rather than taking better looks at the basket in the second half,” said West Chester head coach Damien Blair. “It’s just unfortunate you go through many games like this and then when you need to make big plays, you don’t make big plays after making so many early on.”
The Lakers and Golden Rams went on mini-runs over the final minutes to make the game go down to the wire. West Chester led by one with under three minutes left until Laker senior, Jean Onana, drilled a three-pointer that gave Mercyhurst the lead for good. Like his fellow seniors, Onana was finally rewarded for his hard work.
“When you have teammates pushing you to make big shots, you have all the confidence in the world,” Onana said. “The shots just fall by themselves.”
The Lakers top-notch defense did just enough to hold on from there, making sure their would be no miracles for the Golden Rams like they had against IUP in the semifinals the day before.
Kayode Ajenifuja was named tournament MVP after scoring 31 points the past two days. Ajenifuja came on strong late like many of the Laker players did in the championship game. In just his second year in the program, Ajenifuja accomplished something that no Laker has ever done before with MVP honors.
“It is an amazing feeling to win this championship,” Ajenifuja said. “I’m shocked but this championship was something we always talked about having, and its rewarding when you put those words into action to accomplish our goal.”
Ajenifuja finished with 14 points Sunday, five behind Onana’s team-leading 19 points. Jackson ended up leading all scorers with a game-high 27 points despite the Golden Rams shooting just 22.6 percent in the second half.
The Lakers ended up receiving the eighth and final seed in the Atlantic Regional tournament. Their reward of just sneeking in the tournament is a date with the top seed and host, the Wheeling Jesuit Cardinals. The Cardinals have spent some time as being ranked number one in the country this season. The odds will be against Mercyhurst again, but anything can happen in this season of unpredictability.
“I’ll challenge our guys to one more thing to do, Mercyhurst has never won a NCAA playoff game in program history,” Manchel said. “We got our hands full but I wouldn’t count these guys out.”