When IUP and West Chester’s men’s teams met on Nov. 22, the Crimson Hawks were a different team. This was long before they hit their stride, most notably compiling a 13-game winning streak. On March 5th, the Crimson Hawks were vastly improved heading into the rematch against the Golden Rams in the PSAC semifinals.
Unfortunately for IUP, the result was the same as before.
West Chester’s Matt Penecale hit a game-winning layup at the buzzer in overtime, smashing the hearts of the Crimson Hawks players and fans who made the four-hour trek from Indiana. Penecale’s layup came just five seconds after PSAC West athlete of the year, Brandon Norfleet, gave IUP an 89-88 lead with a jumper.
The heart-breaking 90-89 loss now puts the Crimson Hawks chances for an eighth-straight NCAA tournament appearance on life support. In the last regional rankings, the Crimson Hawks sat in eighth, the last spot to make the Atlantic regional tournament.
“This team is NCAA-deserving,” said IUP head coach Joe Lombardi. “Against teams with winning records we were 9-5 or 9-6 and won the division by a couple games. They’ve done what’s necessary, but the region is really strong and other teams are deserving, too. But they throw it in the computer and whatever flops out flops out.”
The first half of the semifinal could not have gone more perfect for the Crimson Hawks.
IUP shot 63.7 percent from the floor while dominating the Golden Rams on defense as well. The Crimson Hawks roared to a lead by as much as 18 points in the first half, and still had momentum after West Chester sliced the lead to 11 at halftime.
However West Chester slowly climbed back,making it a five-point game with just under four minutes left in regulation. IUP’s foul trouble assisted the huge rally, but nothing was bigger than five missed free throws in the final minutes. This allowed the Golden Rams to miraculously tie the game and force overtime.
Norfleet buried two three-pointers to start the extra session to seemingly give IUP the lift they needed. That was quickly thrwarted by a 7-0 Golden Ram run, setting the stage for Penecale’s heroics.
In what could be his final game as a Crimson Hawk, Brandon Norfleet finished with a game-high 32 points. Norfleet made IUP history by breaking a 40-year old single-season scoring record with 662 points.
“We’re a totally different team now,” Norfleet said. “I’m so proud of how the guys grew up this year. They came in and didn’t have a lot of confidence and we didn’t beat with the same heartbeat. Now we’re all together and brothers and we fight for each other. We fought so hard this game, and it hurts to come up short like that.”
Penecale led six Golden Rams in double-figures with 18 points, and will now look for their first PSAC championship since 1959 Sunday.
IUP’s collapse prevented another all-PSAC West championship game after the Mercyhurst Lakers used a big second half to defeat Shippensburg 79-68.
After being down by as much as 14 in the first half, Mercyhurst shot the lights out on the Raiders in the second half to earn their first-ever PSAC championship game appearance.
“I thought we weren’t playing like ourselves in the first half,” said Mercyhurst head coach Gary Manchel. “We lead the country in points against defensively, and I think we were making the wrong slides. Our change to 1-3-1 caught Shippensburg off guard and it got us back in the game.”
Mercyhurst made just two three-pointers in the first half while shooting just 39.7 percent from the field. The Lakers came out a whole differnt sqaud after halftime,shooting 53.3 percent in the second half, while hitting nine three-pointers. Four of those came from Gerrae Williams, who keyed the second half rally with 16 points in the last 20 minutes.
“I told myself it’s my senior year and we can’t lose like this,” Williams said. “I’m a feel-good type player, once I make one I know I can make the next and so on.”
Williams team-high 20 points also led a Laker bench that outscored the Raiders bench by a 37-4 margin.The Lakers have now won five in a row since losing three-straight games in early February, seemingly ending their regional postseason hopes.
Now the Lakers can punch their ticket to the regional playoffs against West Chester Sunday afternoon with a win and make some more history.