Crimson Hawks lock up share of PSAC West title

Behind the hot shooting of Mathis Keita (senior, communications media) and Jeremy Jeffers (junior, journalism), Indiana University of Pennsylvania picked up a 69-55 regular-season-finale victory at Slippery Rock University Wednesday.

Based on division losses, IUP, which is ranked No. 11 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ Top-25 Poll, finishes the regular season in a tie with Gannon University for first place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division after Wednesday’s win at Morrow Field House. However, Gannon defeated the Crimson Hawks twice this season.

“The execution was really good,” head coach Joe Lombardi said. “To come on the road in a game when you need to win another conference championship, and to execute the way we did shooting 53 percent and only having 11 turnovers, to play that well on offense was a great response to the challenge at hand.”

Keita, who came into the game shooting just nine of 31 from the floor in the last three games, scored 21 points while shooting an efficient 10 of 12 from the floor. Keita also grabbed seven rebounds.

“I thought Mathis has been terrific tonight,” Lombardi said. “He’s been slumping a little bit. I’m really happy for the way he performed.”

Jeffers continued his strong play in the latter part of the regular season, scoring a season-high 17 points and grabbing a team-high nine rebounds.

“Jeremy has been making steady progress,” Lombardi said. “He’s the most-improved guy the last two months.”

Points in the paint were key for the Crimson Hawks, who outscored the Rock 50-32 in that department. Every time Slippery Rock threatened IUP’s lead, a close-range shot by the Crimson Hawks kept the game wide open.

Keita’s layup with 16:29 left in the first half put the Crimson Hawks up for good.

Josh Martin’s layup for Slippery Rock got his team within one in the second half, but Devante Chance (junior, communications media) was there to answer with a layup of his own to kill any chance of Slippery Rock getting back into the game.

Lombardi was pleased with the play of his point guard, whose 10 points marked the seventh consecutive game in double figures.

Chance added six rebounds, six assists and no turnovers, which gives him 14 assists against just one turnover the last two games.

“Devante, he just controlled the whole game,” Lombardi said. “I think he’s the best point guard in the league. I don’t know what other people do. They may score, they might do this, they might do that.

“But the best point guard in the league to me is the guy who can control the game like he controls it.”

Martin’s 18 points led Slippery Rock, which was playing without the guidance of head coach Kevin Reynolds.

At the time of publication, it is unknown why Reynolds did not coach Wednesday. Messages left for Slippery Rocks’ athletic director and spokeswoman were not returned.

With the victory, IUP moves to 23-3 overall and will be the second seed in the PSAC tournament, which opens Saturday. IUP received a first-round bye and will play the winner of California University of Pennsylvania and Mercyhurst University Tuesday at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.

“We look forward to whichever team shows up,” Lombardi said.

IUP split the season series with Cal U, with each team winning on the other’s home floor. IUP lost 67-62 to California Jan. 18 but responded with an 85-47 drubbing Feb. 12.

The Crimson Hawks swept the season series from Mercyhurst, including a 74-66 victory Feb. 19 at the KCAC.

“We’re just happy to start a new journey,” Lombardi said. “We’re happy this journey ended. It says a lot because this is the biggest turnover this team has ever had,” Lomardi said. “So, for this team to grind it out in the regular season and go 23-3 and be co-champions of the PSAC West is quite a feat in itself.

“Sometimes that’s harder to do than going and winning the conference tournament.”