MIDDLETOWN, Pa. – On Tuesday night, Feb. 19, with his team on the road, leading conference rival Penn State Abington 79-77 and just four seconds left in regulation, Penn State Harrisburg's Jordan Gatchell (Manheim, Pa. / Manheim Central) stepped to the free throw line ready to put the game on ice.
With a trip to the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) Championship Tournament's Final Four hanging in the balance, the Lions couldn't have asked for a better scenario than the one unfolding before them. The senior captain bent at the knees, fired the ball towards the rim and followed through.
His shot found nothing but the back of the rim.
Abington's Mike Marvin, the newly-crowned NEAC Player of the Year, grabbed the rebound in front of Harrisburg's bench. Although burying two foul shots would have been less stressful for his coaches and teammates, Gatchell would still seal the win, albeit in a different way.
On the day he was named to the NEAC's All-Conference First-Team, the Lions' point guard raced to the corner of the court and snatched the ball away from Marvin before Abington's big man could make a play. Gatchell dribbled out the clock and Harrisburg exited Abington's gym with the team's most dramatic victory of the year.
For the second-consecutive season, the Lions will travel to Morrisville State for the league's championship tournament with a shot at earning an automatic NCAA tournament berth waiting in New York.
Harrisburg shot an incredible 63.6 percent from beyond the three-point line in the first half. Gatchell hit two three-balls in the game's opening minutes, junior Will Doyle (Franklin, Va. / Tidewater Academy) went 4-4 from beyond the arc and sophomore Ethan Strayer (East Petersburg, Pa. / Hempfield) buried a jumper from downtown in the closing moments of the half to give the Blue & White a 46-38 advantage at the break.
The Lions led by ten points on three separate occasions early in the second half, the team's largest advantage of the night.
Trailing 52-42 with 17:12 left in the game, Abington, one of the tournament's number two seeds, rallied and went on a 15-5 run, culminating in a Max Alton three-ball that tied the game at 57 with 12:20 remaining. A Marvin layup two possessions later gave the home team its first lead since the 12:04 mark of the first half.
After Marvin's jumper made it 61-59 Abington, Gatchell responded by nailing his third three-pointer of the contest. Senior Thristan Lundy (Philadelphia, Pa. / Samuel Fels) hit a jumper a few minutes later and sophomore Joey Farthing (Lancaster, Pa. / Hempfield) knocked down a three-ball from straightaway to extend the Lions' lead to 71-65 with 6:52 left on the clock.
But once again, the home team fought back. Four-straight Abington buckets from Marvin and Avery Barnes tied the score at 73 with 3:42 left in regulation.
Most of this season's conference losses materialized because of Penn State Harrisburg's inability to hold a lead and seal the deal in crunch time. In the closing moments of the NEAC quarterfinal matchup, Gatchell and Farthing made sure history wouldn't repeat itself.
The senior's jumper put the visitors up 75-73. On the ensuing Abington possession, Farthing stole the ball from Marvin and Doyle found him on the other end of the floor. Farthing's layup gave the Lions a four-point advantage with just 3:10 remaining.
Barnes laid one in a minute later, cutting the Abington deficit to two and Penn State Harrisburg used a timeout.
Farthing missed a layup, falling to the floor with 31 seconds to go and the home team looked to be playing for the last shot. But the Harrisburg guard picked himself off the hardwood and hustled back on defense, plucking the ball from Alton and right into the waiting arms of Gatchell. Harrisburg's floor general raced to the other end of the court and took the ball to the hole, extending the visitors' lead to 79-75.
Barnes slammed one home with just seven seconds left to play and Abington fouled three-straight times. Gatchell stepped to the line. The rest is history.
Gatchell outplayed Marvin down the stretch. In the contest's final five minutes, the shifty guard scored four points and swiped the crucial steal that won the game. Abington's talented big man missed two free throws and a jumper and turned the ball over twice during the same stretch.
Harrisburg's three-point production slowed down a bit in the second half but the team's efficiency did not. The Lions finished with a 64.3 shooting percentage from beyond the arc. One of the game's most telling stats was free-throw shooting. The visitors went 8-11 from the charity stripe. Abington struggled from the foul line, converting just 8 of 19 attempts. The home team won the rebounding battle but Harrisburg created more turnovers. Harrisburg's reserves accounted for 16 points. Abington's bench added just five.
Lundy led the way for the visitors with 18 points and seven rebounds; both team-highs. Gatchell finished with 16 and a game-high five steals. Doyle's confident shooting continued. The junior went 5-6 from the field on his way to a 14-point, five-assist night.
Sophomore big man Kevin Icker (Scranton, Pa. / Scranton Prep) added ten points and four rebounds in 11 minutes of play and sophomore Alberto De Los Santos (Enola, Pa. / East Pennsboro) facilitated well, dishing out a game-high eight assists in addition to netting six.
Penn State Harrisburg, the title tournament's lone three seed, now turns its attention to Morrisville State. The Mustangs are the tourney's number one overall seed. The Lions defeated Morrisville 70-58 in the teams' only meeting this season. The rematch tips off this Saturday, Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. The winner earns a spot in the NEAC championship game the next day.