MIDDLETOWN, Pa. – Following its win over league-leading Morrisville State two weeks ago, Penn State Harrisburg looked poised to make some noise in the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) postseason tournament. After back-to-back losses to Gallaudet and Penn State Berks on Feb. 6 and 13, there was no certainty the Lions would even make the playoffs. Heading into their regular season finale on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 16, they needed a win and they needed help up north if they were to play postseason basketball.
They got both.
Harrisburg played one its best games of the year in its 104-73 victory over NEAC South Division leading Penn State Abington. Wells' win over Keuka opened the playoff door and the Lions kicked it down. That combination led to the Blue & White earning its fifth straight conference tournament appearance.
Five Harrisburg players reached the double-digit scoring mark on the day and the Lions held reigning NEAC Freshman of the Year Mike Marvin to just eight points on 2-8 shooting from the field.
Abington grabbed the first significant lead of the contest when RJ Handy converted an old-fashioned three-point play to put the visitors up 21-15 at the 14:09 mark.
A couple of steals by sophomore Joey Farthing (Lancaster, Pa. / Hempfield) and junior Will Doyle (Franklin, Va. / Tidewater Academy) and four-straight free throws from senior Thristan Lundy (Philadelphia, Pa. / Samuel Fels) shifted the momentum and tied the game at 21-all less than a minute later.
With the game still up for grabs, Penn State Harrisburg went on an impressive 26-12 run over the next final ten minutes of the first half to take a 54-39 advantage into the break. During the crucial span, freshman big man Jared Deibler (Middletown, Pa. / Middletown) came off the bench and sparked the Lions, frustrating Marvin with his tenacious defense and adding two consecutive layups on the offensive side. Sophomore sharpshooter Ethan Strayer (East Petersburg, Pa. / Hempfield) knocked down three big three-pointers over the same stretch.
The teams traded baskets to start the second half before Doyle stretched the advantage to 16 points with a pure attempt from beyond the arc with 17:24 remaining in the game.
The Lions played well in all aspects of the game. Freshman Arick Sodini (Manalapan, N.J. / St. John Vianney) knocked down jumpers. Sophomore Alberto De Los Santos (Enola, Pa. / East Pennsboro) drove hard to the basket, either converting layups or getting to the free throw line. When sophomore big man Kevin Icker (Scranton, Pa. / Scranton Prep) laid one in to put the Blue & White up 20 with 14 minutes remaining, it was evident Harrisburg wasn't going to be stopped.
Doyle and Strayer hit more three-balls, Lundy got the foul line and the reserves fed off the starters' energy. The Lions won convincingly and ended Abington's recent eight-game win-streak in the process. An hour later, Wells finished off Keuka and a dangerous Harrisburg squad that racked up wins over the top three teams in the conference was headed back to the playoffs.
The Lions shot a stout 57.1 percent from the field, including 60.7 percent in the second half, compared to just 39.3 percent for the visitors. Abington failed to convert its foul shots, shooting just 60.5 percent from the charity stripe (23-38) while Harrisburg was nearly perfect (22-25). Thanks to Strayer and Doyle's stellar shooting efforts, the Blue & White shot 66.7 percent from downtown. Abington made just two three-pointers.
The game's two most telling stats came in the form of ball movement and all-around team effort. The Lions assisted on 29 baskets compared to Abington's six. Harrisburg's bench played like starters, adding 44 points compared to just six from the visitors' reserves.
On his Senior Day, Lundy may have played the best game of his career, scoring a game-high 21 points, grabbing four rebounds and swiping three steals. He worked hard down low, drawing fouls and going 9-10 from the free throw line.
Doyle continued his stellar play as of late and recorded a double-double. He netted 15 on 5-7 shooting from the field and 3-4 from beyond the arc. His driving ability also led to buckets for Harrisburg's big men. In addition to his point total, he added ten assists, five rebounds and four steals.
Strayer added 18 points in just 14 minutes of play, knocking down a career-high six three-pointers. Sodini was efficient and scored 14 points on 7-9 shooting from the field. De Los Santos' playing time was limited due to foul trouble but he provided hard-nosed defense and ten points. Deibler, Icker, Farthing, sophomore Josh Johnson (Franklin, Va. / Southampton) and freshmen Kieren Kelley (Coal Township, Pa. / Shamokin Area) and Adam Williams (Lancaster, Pa. / Hempfield) combined for 26 off the bench. Every Lion saw time on the court.
One name notably absent from the scoring book was senior captain Jordan Gatchell (Manheim, Pa. / Manheim Central). He collected a team-high three rebounds and added three assists. On his Senior Day, the 1,000-point scorer did not attempt a single shot. He passed up contested shots, instead finding open men. He created space off the dribble yet deferred to his teammates. On a day when the spotlight was on him, he played the role of anti-star to perfection. He didn't press; he simply led his team to victory one more time.
Before tip-off, Gatchell and Lundy were honored by those in attendance at the Capital Union Building. Lundy joined the men's team last season as a junior. After playing a limited role a season ago, he burst onto the scene during his senior campaign. In Harrisburg's conference-opener earlier this year, he recorded a double-double and never looked back.
"Thristan has been a fantastic addition to our program," said Penn State Harrisburg Head Coach Mike Gaffey. "He has put up great numbers while mentoring two children and working two jobs along with being a full-time student. He is willing to do anything I ask of him which makes him a valuable young man to have on our team."
Gatchell is one of the most successful players ever to set foot on the court at Penn State Harrisburg. Earlier this season, he became just the fourth men's basketball player to score 1,000 points for his career and his 1,158 tallies make him the second-highest scorer in school-history. He is the program's career-leader in assists and his 413 rebounds and 230 steals are both good enough to rank him second all-time.
"Jordan was a big time scorer in high school," said Gaffey. "When he found out he would be running the point, he fully accepted and excelled in his new role. Here we are four years later and he's led us to 61 wins and two conference championship appearances. Jordan has mastered his position both on the court and in the classroom. He was nationally-ranked in assist to turnover ratio last season and he carries a 3.9 GPA. Not too shabby for a collegiate career."
Both young men will be missed next season.
Luckily, their collegiate careers are over just yet. Gatchell, Lundy and the rest of the Penn State Harrisburg squad are looking to reach their third-straight NEAC championship game. With wins over fellow tournament teams in North Division champion and tourney host institution Morrisville State, South Division champ Penn State Berks and Penn State Abington, there's not a team in the bracket that wants to see the Lions in the postseason.
Harrisburg will travel to Abington for its first round game this Tuesday, Feb. 19. The squads split the season series. The rubber match winner punches its ticket to Morrisville and a spot in the tournament's Final Four.