MIDDLETOWN, Pa- Penn State Harrisburg lost an 86-84 heartbreaker to one of the best non-conference opponents the team has faced all year in Valley Forge Christian on Wednesday, Jan. 25. It was a bitter pill to swallow seeing as the defeat ended the Lions' record-setting eight-game winning streak. But rather than focus on the gut-wrenching loss, the 150-plus fans in attendance at the Capital Union Building will remember the furious and hard-fought blue and white second half comeback effort that fell just short.
After both teams struggled to gain any significant lead in the first half, the Patriots grabbed a 12-point advantage, their largest of the night, with 12:37 left in regulation. From there, Penn State Harrisburg began to slowly but surely chip into the deficit and swing the momentum in its favor.
Alberto De Los Santos (Enola, PA/East Pennsboro) got the run started by hitting a layup at the 12:16 mark. Amani Glenn (Harrisburg, PA/Central Dauphin East) followed it up by hitting two free throws. Steve Jones (Harrisburg, PA/Harrisburg) scored the Lions' next nine points to cut the score to 72-69 with just under seven minutes to play. Will Doyle (Franklin, VA/Tidewater Academy) capped it off by hitting a three-ball to tie things up on the next possession.
The see-saw portion of the contest was on. The Patriots went up two. The blue and white answered back. The Lions grabbed a two-point cushion. Valley Forge hit a three. It continued like this until Jordan Gatchell (Manheim, PA/Manheim Central) knocked down a jumper in the right corner from just inside the arc to put Penn State Harrisburg up 84-83 with 24 seconds left on the clock.
But after the Lions had a chance to seal the game by grabbing any one of the three offensive rebounds the visitors corralled with fewer than ten ticks remaining, Patriots' forward Michael Stum (Manheim, PA) laid one off the glass and through the net to put Valley Forge up 85-84 with just six seconds left.
Jones was fouled on the ensuing inbound pass but missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Lions fouled and Stum converted one of two free throws, leaving the home team with little time to get off nothing more than a half-court desperation attempt that fell short, as did Penn State Harrisburg's valiant late rally.
Despite missing the late foul shot, Jones was in no way to blame. He was outstanding, scoring a game-high 24 points, collecting seven rebounds, dishing out three assists and padding his nation-leading steals per game average by grabbing an incredible seven picks.
Doyle was also strong as the sophomore transfer from Virginia played one of his best games since donning the blue and white. He netted 19 points, grabbed seven boards and added five assists. He was huge down the stretch and connected on clutch three-pointers and free throws time after time.
Gatchell dropped 12 on the Patriots while Glenn scored nine. Kenton Alston (Harrisburg, PA/Steel-High) added eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks despite being in foul trouble for most of the game.
Nearly every player on the floor had to be cautious not to foul out of the contest. The Lions committed 25 fouls to Valley Forge's 24 but only Dave Reisinger (Harrisburg, PA/Central Dauphin East) fell victim to the referees' constant whistles. The senior forward played well despite fighting through a nagging ankle injury and scored five points, corralled two boards and added two assists in just 15 minutes of action.
The loss to a solid Patriots team (17-5 overall) left a sour taste in Penn State Harrisburg's mouths after an otherwise super sweet run to this point. But the Lions are still in great shape for a run at the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) title with an overall record of 14-4. They currently sit atop the conference standings with seven wins and no blemishes.
If there's one thing a game like this does to a team it's test its mettle. After falling behind by double-digits midway through the second half, with three starters in foul trouble and open shots refusing to fall, the Lions could have easily folded the tent and looked ahead to another day. Instead, they fired at the Patriots with everything they had and proved that no lead is safe when facing this blue and white squad.
That's an intangible that so many other teams would love to have, but simply don't possess. Because you can't recruit character, only the players who have it.
It's no secret; these young men at Penn State Harrisburg have it in spades.
At the conclusion of the intense and physical contest, both teams displayed tremendous sportsmanship and met at half court to take part in a player-led prayer.
The Lions' next game comes on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 29 when they host conference foe Penn State Abington.