MIDDLETOWN, Pa. – During pregame warmups, Morrisville State talked. The visitors made noise. They bobbed their heads to the music. They pounded their chests. The swagger was well-deserved; the reigning North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) champions were in the midst of an impressive 12-game win-streak.
Penn State Harrisburg was a study in contrast. The Lions calmly went about their business before tip-off. Who knows what ran through their minds? Maybe it was the regular season loss to Morrisville 367 days prior. More likely, it was the heartbreaking four-point defeat at the hands of the Mustangs in last year's NEAC championship game that replayed in their heads.
But when the final buzzer sounded Sunday afternoon, it was apparent that during the 40 minutes that mattered most, Harrisburg's attention was focused on nothing but the game plan.
On Feb. 3, Penn State Harrisburg avenged last season's title game setback by beating league-leading Morrisville State 70-58, halting the Mustangs' win-streak in the process.
Like they have in most games this year, the Lions started fast out of the gate. The difference on this afternoon? The letup that doomed Harrisburg in its four conference losses never materialized.
When Jailaan Kinsey put Morrisville's first points of the game on the board, Will Doyle (Franklin, Va. / Tidewater Academy) answered right back with a three-ball to push the home team's advantage to 10-3.
Doyle hitting big shots was the trademark on this day. The versatile junior played the best game of his career and scored a game-high 25 points. He missed just one shot, going 8-9 from the field and 2-2 from the foul line. Most impressively, he buried a school-record seven three-pointers.
The Blue & White took its largest lead of the first half when Kevin Icker (Scranton, Pa. / Scranton Prep) used a shooter's touch to get a friendly bounce. His jumper hit the front of the rim and fell through the cylinder to make it 23-14 at the 7:05 mark.
As expected from a team that averaged 81.7 points per game in its last ten outings, Morrisville's offense eventually came to life and the Mustangs used an 11-2 run over the next five minutes to tie it at 25.
With the score knotted-up and the momentum favoring the visitors, it looked as if Harrisburg's early advantage may have simply been a hot start. But Doyle singlehandedly kept the home team from cooling off when he flushed three-balls on back-to-back Harrisburg possessions.
The Mustangs' Tom Wilk converted the first of two free throws on the other end but the visitors left too much time on the clock. With 25 seconds left in the half, senior captain Jordan Gatchell (Manheim, Pa. / Manheim Central) brought the ball across half court, sat on the rock until just seven seconds remained and found an open look for Ethan Strayer (East Petersburg, Pa. / Hempfield) in the corner. The sharpshooting sophomore connected from beyond the arc and gave Penn State Harrisburg a 34-26 lead heading into the break.
Doyle picked up right where he left off when play resumed, connecting on two three-balls in the first four minutes of the second half.
Trailing 44-34 with 15:29 remaining, the Mustangs got back-to-back layups from Kucjok Ater and Andrew Lucio, forcing the Blue & White to burn a timeout. Penn State Harrisburg Head Coach Mike Gaffey challenged his players and they responded to the tune of a 10-0 run over the next four minutes.
The Lions preserved the double-digit lead in crunch time. Alberto De Los Santos (Enola, Pa. / East Pennsboro) knocked down two foul shots to give his squad a comfortable 63-50 lead with 1:44 remaining.
Morrisville made one last push when Brandon Hanks hit a jumper from downtown and Lucio knocked down a jump shot on consecutive possessions, cutting the deficit to eight points with 1:11 left in regulation.
The Mustangs were forced to foul but their attempts were thwarted when De Los Santos and Joey Farthing (Lancaster, Pa. / Hempfield) combined to convert six free throws in the final minute of play.
Credit has to go to Gaffey and his coaching staff for Harrisburg's strategy. The Lions repeatedly drained the shot clock to 15 seconds or less before running their offense. That methodical pace frustrated the visitors all afternoon. As the second half wound down, the Mustangs struggled to possess the ball more than once per minute.
Penn State Harrisburg shot 50 percent from beyond the arc compared to Morrisville's 38.9 percentage from downtown. The Blue & White shot 86.7 percent from the free throw line while the Mustangs only managed a 64.3 percentage. Most importantly, the Lions held the edge in rebounding 32-27. It was only the second time this season that the Lions outrebounded their opposition.
Though he only scored four points, Thristan Lundy (Philadelphia, Pa. / Samuel Fels) was a beast down low. The Harrisburg senior battled with bigger Morrisville players all day and still grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, nine of which came on the defensive end. De Los Santos netted 14 points and grabbed six boards while freshman Arick Sodini (Manalapan, N.J. / St. John Vianney) added eight tallies in 19 minutes of play.
Gatchell was the floor general. He commanded the ball and made sure the Lions controlled the time of possession. He dropped nine points on Morrisville State and dished-out a game-high five assists. The reserve trio of Farthing, Icker and Strayer stepped up when called upon, converting crucial buckets on one end of the floor while defending some of the best players in the NEAC on the other.
The Blue & White shut down reigning NEAC Player of the Year Mickey Davis. The junior found himself in foul trouble early and was limited to just three points and five rebounds. The Lions held fellow 2011-12 all-conference selections in Ater and Hanks to just 12 combined points.
In terms of individual performances, this game belonged to Doyle. Strong off the dribble and capable of hitting a shot from anywhere on the floor, the junior has deferred to others at times this season. Against Morrisville, he was confident and showed no hesitation. It was apparent from the get-go that he was feeling it and the Blue & White rode his hot hand all day long.
After falling to the NEAC North Division's basement dwellers from Cazenovia the day before, the Lions reignited their playoff hopes with the win Sunday afternoon. Penn State Harrisburg sits third in the South standings with a 7-4 league record (10-12 overall). They'll need some help but the Lions can still repeat as division champions. The loss was Morrisville's first since Dec. 5.
When asked if he thought the victory would spark his team down the stretch, Gaffey's response was cautiously optimistic.
"I think it will," he said in his typical level-headed fashion. "In our conference losses this year we've had the lead in every one of those games with less than seven minutes remaining. We turned that around today and if we execute the way we're capable of, we're a very dangerous team."
As the clock hit zero, there was no epic celebration. There was no dancing on the scorer's table. There was no storming the court at the Capital Union Building; just a nod of approval from Lundy and a proud Blue & White bench. After an up and down campaign, Penn State Harrisburg had its signature victory. Still the Lions knew there was more to be done this season.
They needed a win. They got it. That it came at the expense of Morrisville State was a happy coincidence forged by hard work and effective execution.
Now the real work begins.
Penn State Harrisburg's next outing comes this Wednesday, Feb. 6 when the team travels to Washington D.C. to take on a dangerous Gallaudet squad.