Smith crowns GU conference champs

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Girbran Smith would pretend he was hitting the game-winning shot when he would practice as a kid.

“You dream shooting in the back yard, 5, 4, 3…swish,” said Smith, a senior and key contributor to this year’s Gannon University men’s basketball team.

On Sunday afternoon Smith’s dream became a reality when he drained a 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds remaining to send the Gannon faithful into a frenzy and give the Knights a 69-66 win over No. 20 Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game.

Smith’s late-game heroics brought the PSAC championship trophy back to Gannon for the first time since 2009.

The Knights learned later Sunday that they would open play in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional as the No. 2 seed at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against PSAC Western Division rival Slippery Rock at West Liberty State University in West Liberty, W. Va.

Gannon has met Slippery Rock, the regional’s No. 7 seed, three times this season and the Knights have won all three. The latest meeting came last week in the PSAC Tournament quarterfinals when Gannon rolled to a 71-45 victory.

Sunday’s tournament championship matchup against IUP was a different story, as a boisterous Hammermill Center crowd of 1,706 witnessed a back-and-forth struggle.

Neither team was able to produce a lead larger than four points until the Knights rattled off 10 unanswered points late in the first half to open up a 40-28 lead with one minute, 23 seconds left.

But the Crimson Hawks (26-6) were able to gain back some momentum after a quick field goal and a 3-pointer by Shawn Dyer cut the Gannon lead to seven entering the break.

Gannon (23-8) led 53-47 when IUP appeared to take control of the contest by going on a 12-3 run and grabbing a three-point lead with 5:37 to play.

The Crimson Hawks’ Devante Chance took the air out of the building when he scored five straight points to give IUP its largest lead of the afternoon, 66-61, with 3:32 remaining.

However, that would be the last points the Crimson Hawks would score the rest of the way.

A’Darius Porter started the Gannon comeback with a layup, before an IUP turnover led to a Smith jumper with 2:20 left to cut the IUP lead down to one.

Following a defensive stop, senior guard Adam Blazek was fouled and tied the game with 1:36 on the clock after splitting a pair of free throws.

The Gannon defense has stepped up big all season long, but its biggest stop of the year might have been the final defensive stand of the game.

Chance tried to drive the middle of the lane where he ran into a cluster of Knights. A scramble on the floor led to a jump ball with the possession arrow favoring Gannon.

“It was tough — we were down five,” coach John Reilly said. “We had to get some stops and IUP is not easy to stop.”

Reilly credited the players for reaching down and getting a stop against tough IUP guards to get the ball back in  final seconds of the game.

“We found another level,” Reilly said. “We just dig in and stay in front and anything that was loose we were just on it.”

With 15.2 seconds remaining the Knights inbounded the ball in front of the IUP bench. Blazek brought the ball down, worked his way around the perimeter, passed the ball to Jean Yves Toupane, who quickly dished it to Smith and the rest is history.

Smith led all scorers with a career-high 27 points, with 22 coming in the first half.

Blazek (12), Porter (11) and Rich Austin (10) all scored in double figures for the Knights.

Chance and Dryer scored 22 points each for the Crimson Hawks. Chance and Dryer went 9-for-14 from behind the arc, with Chance draining six.

Blazek, who played his final game on the Hammermill Center floor, said winning the PSAC title was something he wanted since he came to Gannon.

“It means a whole lot,” Blazek said. “That was a goal coming to Gannon. We just play so hard and practice so hard together. We just win team basketball, which makes it feel so good. We earned the PSAC championship.”

Gannon advanced to the PSAC title game after a 71-45 quarterfinal rout over Slippery Rock and a 69-56 win over Kutztown in the semifinals, both at the Hammermill Center.

DOMINIC SANSONE

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