BETHANY, W.Va. - The Penn State Altoona men's basketball team's season came to a conclusion on Wednesday night, when the Lions were defeated 71-66 by Bethany College in the first round of the Eastern College Athletic Conference Division III Championship Tournament at the Hummel Field House.
Penn State Altoona (17-10), which was the number four seed in Pod 4 of the ECAC Tournament bracket, is eliminated from the tournament. Meanwhile, Bethany (17-12), the top seed in Pod 4, will advance to the ECAC quarterfinals this Friday, when the Bison will take on Medaille College.
Penn State Altoona worked its way to a 34-28 halftime lead. But inconsistency plagued the Lions throughout the game, and it caught up with them in the second half, when Bethany jumped ahead and the Lions were unable to answer adequately.
"Obviously disappointed with the way the season finished out, not being able to close out a couple of games where we had a chance to win. Tonight was a tale of not being able to make a shot when we needed to and losing our rhythm offensively there in the second half," said Penn State Altoona head coach David McGreal. "Hats off to Bethany for making some adjustments at halftime and switching to their matchup zone defense, which took away a lot of our penetrating. We unfortunately fell into that trap and just settled for outside shots and three-pointers, and we just kept shooting them even though we weren't making them."
Ishimeal Nance (Muscle Shoals, AL/Muscle Shoals) led Penn State Altoona in scoring with 20 points to go along with six rebounds. Dequan Jackson (Philadelphia, PA/Murrell Dobbins) added 12 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. Rich Bouknight (Norristown, PA/Norristown) scored seven points while finishing with two boards, two assists, two steals, and a block.
For Nance, Jackson, and Bouknight -- each a senior -- Wednesday's game marked the final one of their collegiate basketball careers.
"Disappointing end of the careers for Ish, DJ, and Rich," said McGreal. "They played their guts out, but unfortunately we were unable to do enough to send those guys out with at least one more win."
Chucky Drummond (Royersford, PA/Spring-Ford) added a season-high 10 points off the bench for Penn State Altoona. Cameron Gardner-Nicholson (Philadelphia, PA/Boys' Latin Charter) grabbed a team-high nine rebounds, and Jalen Archie-Davis (Norcross, GA/Norcross) dished out a team-best five assists and also led the squad with three steals.
Bethany's Andrew Williams led all scorers on the night with 23 points, while Calique Jones scored 15 points and Liam Davis had 12 points. Jones and Davis grabbed seven boards each.
By halftime, Penn State Altoona came out on top after a tightly-played period.
Jackson's jumper eight seconds into the game opened the scoring. After Archie-Davis' layup at 17:08, Jackson connected from three-point range at 16:10 to put the Lions up 7-4. Nance's trey at 14:52 and his free throws at 13:30 kept the visitors up by one, 12-11.
An Austin Krise (Allport, PA/West Branch) layup and another Nance three-pointer gave the Lions a 17-14 lead by 10:45, but Bethany reeled off six straight points to get on top, using a layup from Williams and two baskets from Davis to go up 20-17 by 8:29.
After Davis' jump shot at 5:30 tied the game 23-23, two foul shots from Bouknight put Penn State Altoona back in the lead. A layup from Gardner-Nicholson preceded a three-point play by Jackson at 2:32 that gave the Lions a five-point advantage, and Nance's jump 27 seconds later put his team ahead 32-25. Marshall Higley's (Sayre, PA/Sayre) jumper at the one-minute mark made it 34-25, and the Lions went into the locker room up 34-28 after Bethany's Jerron Athey hit a three-pointer with 33 seconds left in the half.
But Penn State Altoona, which shot 38.2% from the field while going 3-for-10 from beyond the arc, was unable to improve upon its offensive performance in the second half. In the second period, the Lions shot just 34.3% from the field and went 4-for-18 from three-point range.
"The game plan in the second half with the lead was to continue to attack the rim, and when we did that, we were successful," said McGreal. "But down the stretch, when Bethany needed to make a big shot, they hit a couple threes and a handful of free throws, and we weren't able to answer enough to pull out the victory."
After two foul shots from Nance put the Lions up 36-30 at the 18:05 mark, Williams' layup and free throw at 16:32 helped to cut the Bison deficit to one, 36-35. Williams connected from three-point range at 15:57 to give the home squad a 38-37 lead.
Trey Shifflett hit a three-pointer for the Bison at 10:47 to put them up 43-31, and Jones' jumper 24 seconds later made it 45-41. Later, back-to-back baskets from Davis and Jones gave Bethany a 53-46 lead at 7:27.
Three-pointers from Drummond and Higley made it a one-point game, 53-52, with 5:12 to play. After two Jones foul shots and a Williams bucket, Drummond's layup at 3:49 kept the Lions within one possession, 57-54, of Bethany's lead. Jackson's slam at 3:12 cut the home team's lead to 57-56.
Bethany answered with an Athey three-pointer and Nick Metz layup to reestablish a six-point lead, 62-56, with 2:31 remaining. Drummond came up with another three-pointer for Penn State Altoona, sinking one at 1:32 to again keep his team within one possession, 64-61.
Jones' layup and two Williams free throws increased Bethany's advantage to seven points, 68-61, with 28 seconds on the clock.
Bouknight followed by hitting a three-pointer at the 20-second mark to make it a four-point game, and Nance's layup with 16 seconds to go brought Penn State Altoona to within two points, 68-66.
But the Lions were unable to find the big shot in the closing seconds, and Bethany added free throws from Williams and Davis in its final two possessions to pull out a five-point win.
Penn State Altoona held slight leads over Bethany in rebounds (43-41), points off turnovers (13-11), second chance points (15-9), fastbreak points (8-4), and bench points (17-9). But the Lions were ultimately undone by their struggles to hit shots consistently.
Despite the loss, Penn State Altoona men's basketball posted one of the most successful seasons of any varsity sport at the campus in the NCAA Division III era of the Athletics program. The Lions' 17 wins this season were a program record, and the squad qualified for both the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and ECAC Tournaments for the second year in a row. Headlining the individual accomplishments of the players was this week's selection of Nance as the AMCC Player of the Year, the first such honor bestowed on a men's basketball player in Lions history.
"At the end of the day, even though we were unable to win tonight, it's been a history-making, statement-making, and record-breaking season for this team and our program," said McGreal. "Hopefully, we can continue to build on the success of last year's and this year's teams and continue to turn Penn State Altoona into one of the better programs in Pennsylvania."