The Indiana University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team has been making things easy for the NCAA tournament selection committee.
For the fourth time in the past five seasons, IUP’s Kovalchick Complex will play host to the Atlantic Region of the NCAA Division II men’s tournament.
The hosting duties came after the Crimson Hawks, who captured their fourth consecutive Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference tournament championship Sunday with a 54-53 win against Mercyhurst, were named the region’s top seed.
“We do have a beautiful facility and set up for it,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “We’ve been on a really good run and it goes to the best team in the regional. To be deemed, during the 30-game regular season and the conference tournament, the most successful team in the region is an honor and it’s a tribute to the players on the team.”
No. 1 IUP (30-1, 21-1 PSAC) will host No. 8 seed Winston-Salem State (21-8, 10-7 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association) in the first round of the tournament at 5 p.m. Saturday.
The Crimson Hawks will enter this weekend with plenty of experience in tow. IUP will be making its 19th NCAA tournament appearance and the 12th in 14 seasons under Lombardi.
Last season, the Crimson Hawks advanced to the Division II Final Four where a loss to Augusta in the national semifinals ended their season at 33-3, which was tied for the best record in program history.
“Experience in life is valuable,” said Lombardi, who has led IUP to a nation-best 91-6 record since the 2019-20 season. “It certainly provides a little bit of advantage, maybe a calmness, maybe an understanding. We’re certainly glad we have that experience with us.”
IUP also enters its tournament lid-lifter with some experience against its opponent, which won its CIAC conference tournament against Lincoln (Pa.) Sunday. The Crimson Hawks defeated Winston-Salem in a PSAC/MEC/CIAA Challenge game, 67-50, at Clarion University’s Waldo S. Tippin Gymnasium on Nov. 13.
“We’re kind of familiar with them and are ready,” Lombardi said.
Jaylon Gibson, a 6-foot-10 junior center, leads Winston-Salem with 12.9 points per game, 6.2 rebounds and a conference-best .564 shooting percentage. Guards Samage Teel and Jaylen Alston average 11.9 and 11.7 points per game, respectively.
Winston-Salem also boasts 6-foot-10 forward Nathan Springs, who averages just five points and 2.9 rebounds per game, but makes the Rams the longest team IUP will likely face in the tournament, Lombardi said.
“They played Wake Forest to a very tough (13-point) game,” he said of Winston-Salem. “They just have a lot of athletes and they’re a great rebounding team.”
The Crimson Hawks, who were ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the regular season, also have plenty of skilled athletes on their side.
Graduate student guard Shawndale Jones, who played two years at North Hills before enrolling at Kiski Prep, leads IUP with 20 points per game, 102 assists and 52 steals.
Despite IUP’s recent success in the NCAA tournament, Jones has never played on Division II’s grandest stage. After Jones was named the PSAC tournament MVP in 2020, the NCAA canceled the national tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then seven games into the following season, Jones tore his ACL and the posterolateral corner of his knee, causing him to miss last season’s lengthy postseason run.
Lombardi said Jones is ready for this weekend and beyond.
“Every team needs a heartbeat, and he’s the heartbeat of our team,” Lombardi said. “He’s our emotional leader. He’s a very cerebral player, so he leads and directs people from that standpoint. He’s like a coach on the floor. Those are two incredible assets that go far beyond just putting the ball in the bucket. He makes others around him better.”
Redshirt senior guard Dave Morris averages 15.2 points per game for IUP, while forward Ethan Porterfield is scoring 12.6 points per game and Tomiwa Sulaiman is adding 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per outing.
With Jones leading a strong core of veteran players, Lombardi said he’s confident in his team’s ability to play well and contend for IUP’s first national championship.
“These guys are on their journey at this given time, in these moments,” Lombardi said. “We’ll put some preparation in, and God willing we’ll be able to extend it as long as we can.”
The Atlantic Region also includes No. 2 seed West Liberty facing No. 7 seed Pitt-Johnstown in the first round at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, while No. 3 seed Mercyhurst will square off against No. 6 seed East Stroudbsurg at noon.
Junior guard Bryce Butler, a Latrobe graduate, is leading West Liberty (28-3, 20-2 Mountain East Conference) with 22.3 points per game, which puts him at fifth in the nation.
West Liberty, which is second in the nation in scoring at 101.2 points per game, earned the second seed in the region after knocking off Fairmont State 112-82 on Sunday in the Mountain East Conference tournament championship.
Pitt-Johnstown (20-10, 15-7 PSAC) lost to Mercyhurst in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
Gateway graduate John Paul Kromka leads the Mountain Cats in every facet of the game. The 6-foot-7 senior forward is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with his 7.1 rebounds.
Kromka is Pitt-Johnstown’s all-time leader in blocks, ranks fourth all time in rebounds and is fifth all time in scoring.
No. 3 seed Mercyhurst (24-5, 18-4 PSAC) is led by Jeff Planutis, who is scoring 15 points per game, while Michael Bradley is adding 14.7 points per game and Nicholas Lang is adding 12.3.
East Stroudsburg (23-8, 15-7 PSAC) was knocked out of the conference tournament by IUP in the semifinals. Carlos Pepin paces the Warriors with 17.2 points per game while Lakeem McAliley contributes 16.7 points and Jaelen McGlone adds 11.3.
NCAA Division II women’s tournament
Jess Strom was realistic about her California University of Pennsylvania women’s basketball team’s chances of getting into the NCAA tournament field.
The Vulcans (21-10, 14-8) finished second in the PSAC West standings behind Gannon.
“We have 10 losses, so basically we were going into the [PSAC] tournament thinking we had to win to get in,” the California coach said.
That’s exactly what the Vulcans did.
California swept through the PSAC tournament winning games against Edinboro and West Chester before knocking off Gannon, 75-63, Sunday to capture the conference title and earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
The No. 6 seed Vulcans will get a rematch against No. 3 seed West Chester (22-8, 18-4 PSAC) at noon Friday at Atlantic Region host Glenville State.
“I’m really proud of our team because I feel like we have been working all year long to get better,” said Strom, who guided California to its eighth consecutive NCAA tournament berth and 19th in school history. “I feel like the last five games we’ve been hitting our stride. I think we beat two really good teams these last two games in West Chester and Gannon.
“I think we can beat anybody.”
Strom said it took some time for her team to come together this season, as it returns just one starter and features three transfers who weren’t on the Vulcans roster a year ago.
“Obviously we are going in wanting to win very badly, but I think our team is pretty loose,” Strom said. “I think we have some fun. We play kind of loose. We play really hard.”
Senior guard/forward Rajah Fink leads California with 15.2 points per game, while fellow senior guard Ciaira Lloyd adds 14.3 points, junior guard Halle Herrington chips in 13.1 and sophomore guard/forward Allycia Harris contributes 11.5
West Chester — which fell to the Vulcans, 62-59, in the PSAC quarterfinals last week — is paced by 6-foot-1 junior center Emily McAteer, who averages 15.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
Junior guard Leah Johnson also averages 15.3 points per game for West Chester, which also receives significant contributions from forward Michelle Kozicki, who scores 13.4 points per game, along with guard Anna McTamney, who adds 13.1.
“This is the fun time of year for us,” Strom said. “You play all season, you grind it in January and February to make it to March. We are one of eight teams in our region playing right now, so we’re just going to go and have some fun.”
Western Pennsylvania will also be represented in the Atlantic Region by No. 2 seed Gannon (29-4, 19-3 PSAC), which will face No. 7 seed Charleston, W. Va., (23-8, 16-6 Mountain East Conference) in the first round at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
Charleston lost to Glenville State, 76-59, in its conference championship game.
Gannon is paced by forward Samantha Pirosko, who is scoring 20.3 points per game, and guard Emma Wright, who is averaging 13.7, while Charleston is led by guard Trinity Palacio’s 15.8 points, Markyia McCormick’s 13.1 and Dakota Reeves’ 11.9.
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