Men thrill in early games

While the rest of Gannon University’s students were polishing off Thanksgiving leftovers this weekend, the men’s basketball team was just digging in.

Gannon locked up third place in the Gary Miller Classic Friday and Saturday, after splitting a pair of one-point thrillers with East Stroudsburg and Kutztown universities.

Two weeks into the regular season, the Knights remain where they started—at .500 thanks to a 2-2 record. But Gannon’s road to an even mark has not been without its peaks and valleys.

Of Gannon’s four games this season, three have ended with a scoring margin of two or fewer.

The Knights tipped off their season with a 90-89 loss to East Stroudsburg Nov. 19 before turning the tables the next day, when they scored an 80-79 victory over Kutztown. The Knights made their home debut Friday in a 67-65 loss to Daemen College prior to wiping Roberts Wesleyan College, 86-61, Saturday.

Coach John T. Reilly said the close losses have provided the Knights with an early test.

“They were resilient, and took it well but we weren’t going to let them sulk and complain about it,” he said. “We need to be ready to go to the next game.”

In each instance, the Knights did indeed rebound.

In Gannon’s season opener against East Stroudsburg, which was selected to finish first in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s East division in the preseason coaches poll, the Warriors prevailed when Russell Graham III knocked down the game-winning jumper with 26 seconds left. The one-point margin was an appropriate ending for a game that saw 28 lead changes and 12 ties.

Less than 24 hours later, the Knights nearly surrendered a 15-point halftime lead to Kutztown, but instead found themselves on the right side on the scoreboard, as the pair of one-point finishes marked the first such opening two games in the 67-year history of Gannon men’s basketball.

This year’s version of the Knights became the first to start the season against a conference foe thanks to a rule instituted this year by the PSAC. Under the rule, each team begins its season with the PSAC crossover portion of its schedule, as the games between the East and West divisions will count towards teams’ conference records.

In addition, all East and West teams will play each other, as these eight games will take place on Saturdays and Sundays. Previously, each team only played four crossover games.

A familiar facet of Gannon’s schedule, however, the 28th annual Gary Miller Classic saw the Knights pick up right where they had left off a week earlier.

Gannon once again took the game down to the wire, this time resulting in the Knights’ first loss to a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics team in 21 years in front of 1,100 fans Friday at the Hammermill Center. Gannon nearly erased a 10-point Daemen lead with 2 minutes left, but the Knights missed on a 3-point shot to win it at the buzzer.

Starting junior guard Oscar Macias said the close losses provided more frustration than anxiety.

“They are nerve-wracking, but probably more so for the fans, because we know how good we can be, we just can’t seem to get stops when it counts,” he said.

The following night, the Knights saw to it that the tournament’s consolation game was devoid of drama, as they pulled away early with a 22-2 run to start the game.

The nail-biting finishes are nothing new for the Gannon faithful, who watched the Knights play in 11 games decided by four points or fewer a year ago.

However, this year’s squad sports a totally different look, as it features eight new players.

“I like our team—I think we are pretty good at this point,” Reilly said. “I think if we continue to grow, we have a chance to be a very good team.”

Several of those additions have provided sizable contributions to the Knights’ cause this season. Junior guard Darrell Blanton, who was redshirted last season, is leading the team with 17.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Freshman point guard Adam Blazek has also made a splash by averaging 16.5 points and starting every game thus far.

However, despite the success of several individuals, Reilly said he remains cautious, pointing to the close losses as evidence.

“It (the close games) shows we’re almost good enough to win in those games. But we weren’t able to do a lot of the little things,” he said. “Defensively, having active hands, boxing out on rebounds; little things that can turn the game.”

Macias said it’s a matter of putting the time in.

“Last year’s team, Coach said they weren’t very hard-working, and we know about all those things we need to do, we know about the history—that’s why we chose to come here,” he said. “We’re all in it and it’s a grind.”

The Knights will pick up with their PSAC crossover portion of the schedule Friday, when they travel to Millersville University, before heading to West Chester University Saturday.

Joe Cuneo

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