Basketball enters pivotal two-game homestand

The Gannon University men’s basketball team was caught between a Rock and a Lock last week.

The Knights squandered a double-digit second-half lead in a 70-63 loss to Slippery Rock University at home Wednesday before salvaging a week split by romping over Lock Haven University 80-49 Saturday on the road.

The split moved the Knights into a practical tie for fifth place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s West division, as they carry a record of 10-8 overall and 8-6 in conference games.

The Knights enter a crucial two-game homestead this week with games against No. 16 Indiana and California universities of Pennsylvania. The Crimson Hawks are perched atop the West division standings, while Cal is tied for fifth, and can take a virtual two-game lead over the Knights with a win thanks to another head-to-head victory Jan. 14.

Coach John Reilly said the Knights continue to work.

“We’re not cutting corners,” he said. “It would be one thing if we were cutting corners, but this is a hard-working group who’s trying to find their way.”

Heading into the game, the Knights held a distinct advantage on paper, having dispatched the Rock in all but one meeting inside the friendly confines of the Hammermill Center the previous 20 seasons. This time, unfortunately, Rock beat paper.

The Knights, having not lost to the Rock since the 1993-94 season, looked to be on their way to extending the streak, as they jumped out to an 11-point advantage early in the second half after battling to a 25-all tie in the first half in front of 1,061 fans.

Slippery Rock (12-6 overall, 9-5 PSAC) put together a sustained run in the second half by running the Knights off the boards with a 29-18 rebounding edge, 12 of which came on the offensive end and led to 14 points.

The Rock also drained key 3-pointers, as Tabari Pratt connected on a long shot from the right elbow with four minutes remaining to spur an 8-1 run that gave Slippery Rock the lead for good. John Bayardelle poured in two more from downtown in the final two minutes to seal the win.

The Rock was able to contain junior forward Darrell Blanton down the stretch with a double-team, allowing Gannon’s leading scorer just a single free throw in the final 4 ½ minutes. Blanton finished with a game-high 25 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. Freshman point guard Adam Blazek contributed 23 points of his own.

Reilly said the defense is still searching for its identity.

“Earlier in the year we weren’t very good defensively, but what would’ve put us over the top in that game is keeping them off the glass,” he said.

“They also put two or three shots right in our face. But we have to do a better job making them miss their shots instead of hoping they miss them.”

Gannon had to once again shake off the tough loss, and turn to a different state of mind when it traveled to face winless Lock Haven (0-17, 0-14) Saturday.

“We didn’t go in there thinking about the records; we approached it that we were playing ourselves,” Reilly said.

The Knights enjoyed balanced scoring throughout its nine-man rotation Saturday, as four players finished in double-figures.

Blanton said it was a welcome sight after he and Blazek combined for more than two-thirds of the offense against Slippery Rock.

“Me and Adam are doing everything we can as is every other player on the team,” he said. “It would be nice to get more collective scoring.”

The Knights will once again have to change their mentality, as they prepare to face speedy, guard-oriented Indiana, which lost in its last trip to Erie, a 71-47 upset to Mercyhurst Jan. 21. Gannon will have a chance to follow Mercyhurst’s lead, and take down the high-powered Crimson Hawks 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, before hosting Cal the same time Saturday.

Despite the long road ahead, the Knights say they are just worrying about their individual responsibilities.

“If everyone takes care of what you’re supposed to do, everything else will fall in to place, and you don’t have to worry about the rest of the league, because it will pan out like it’s supposed to,” said senior guard Steve Piotrowicz, who has been sidelined for much of the season after suffering a concussion in early January. Piotrowicz will rejoin the team on the bench when they welcome Indiana Wednesday.

JOE CUNEO

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