Lions’ Team Effort Leads to 68-66 Win Over Juniata

Photo (by Omer Sanchez): Sophomore guard Jack Kusters goes in for a layup during Saturday's win over Juniata.
Photo (by Omer Sanchez): Sophomore guard Jack Kusters goes in for a layup during Saturday's win over Juniata.

ALTOONA, Pa. – Penn State Altoona men's basketball pulled off a hard-fought win on Saturday afternoon, edging Juniata College 68-66 in the Lions' home opener in the Adler Auxiliary Gym.

Penn State Altoona (2-0) utilized 13 players in a tightly-contested game that included eight lead changes. The Lions' win snaps a two-game skid to their nearby non-conference foe Juniata, during which Penn State Altoona suffered a pair of 30-plus point losses.

"We're very excited about today's victory over a quality program such as Juniata. Coach [Greg] Curley does an amazing job over there," said Penn State Altoona head coach David McGreal. "This one was a definite team effort. We had great play from numerous people, including guys off the bench."

Jack Kusters (Quakertown, PA/Lansdale Catholic) scored a team-high 16 points for Penn State Altoona, while Cameron Gardner-Nicholson (Philadelphia, PA/Boys' Latin Charter) added 11 points, four rebounds, and a game-high three blocks.

"Big Cam battled all game. We feel like he gets fouled a ton, and they allow it to go, but he stayed in there and had a huge bucket down the stretch for us," said McGreal. "Jack hit a couple timely shots, as well."

Alex McClellan (York, PA/West York) and Nate Gillen (Johnstown, PA/Central Cambria) put up double-digit point totals off the bench, with McClellan scoring 11 points and Gillen finishing with 10 points. Andruw Harman (Chesapeake, VA/Great Bridge) posted team-highs with eight rebounds and three steals, and Bryan Acosta (Orlando, FL/Wekiva) dished out a team-best four assists.

"Can't say enough about the role players tonight, including Nate, Alex, and Bryan," McGreal added. "Alex's timely shooting put us in the lead in the second half. Nate's tough play at both ends of the floor also helped us stop some runs on their end and create some runs on our end."

Juniata (0-1) was led in scoring by Marcus Hall, who finished with a game-high 20 points. Nate DaCanal added 13 points off the bench for the Eagles, while Jake Holsopple grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.

Penn State Altoona scored the game's first basket at 19:02, when Kusters connected from three-point range. The Lions never trailed the rest of the first half, en route to a seven-point lead by halftime.

Gillen's three-pointer at 14:02 gave Penn State Altoona a 12-5 advantage. After Juniata closed the gap to one point, 14-13, following DaCanal's layup and foul shot at 11:27, Gardner-Nicholson's basket and Harman's breakaway dunk got the Lions' lead back to five, 18-13.

Threes from McClellan and Trevor Hunter (Baltimore, MD/New Town) upped Penn State Altoona's lead to 28-19 by the 6:18 mark, and Acosta's layup at 5:48 kept the difference at nine, 30-21. Dominic Frucella's (Duncansville, PA/Hollidaysburg) basket at 5:14 extended the Lions' lead to 10 points, 32-22.

Juniata got back to within four, 32-28, on Hall's layup at 3:11. But free throws by Acosta and Gillen got a few points back for Penn State Altoona, and the Lions went into the locker room ahead 37-30.

Penn State Altoona got a layup from Gardner-Nicholson and a three-pointer from Kusters to get its lead back to nine points, 42-33, one minute into the second half.

But Juniata used a 16-4 to take its first lead of the day. Holsopple's layup at 13:05 tied the score 46-46, and a foul shot and layup from Cameron Keck gave the Eagles their first lead of the game, 49-46, by the 12:40 mark.

The teams exchanged the lead back and forth several times over the next eight-plus minutes, before McClellan's three-pointer at 3:12 put the home team up 63-62 – a lead that the Lions would not relinquish the rest of the way.

Gardner-Nicholson's layup at 1:38 increased Penn State Altoona's lead to 65-62, and free throws by Kusters and Robbie Hicks (Rockledge, FL/Rockledge) made it 68-64 with 12 seconds remaining.

Juniata used a pair of Keck foul shots with seven seconds left to cut the Lions' lead to 68-66. After a miss on the front end of a one-and-one by Penn State Altoona, the Eagles had one more possession with a chance to tie the score or team the lead. But the Lions held on, as Juniata missed on a last second three-point attempt.

Penn State Altoona overcame some woes at the charity stripe in the second half, during which the Lions shot just 7-for-19 from the foul line.

"We obviously still have a ton of work to do, especially cleaning up some things on the defensive end and working on better shot selection," said McGreal. "The obvious, glaring stat was our free throw percentage in the second half, which almost cost us the game."

Next up, Penn State Altoona travels to Ohio to compete in an exhibition game against Division II opponent Walsh University on Saturday, November 23 at 2:00 p.m. After that, the Lions get back into their regular season schedule on Tuesday, November 26, when they will travel for their Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference opener against La Roche University at 6:00 p.m.

"It's time to turn our attention to La Roche for our conference opener in a little over a week," said McGreal. "In between, we have an exhibition game against Division II opponent Walsh. We'll go over to Ohio, have a good time, do some team bonding, and then get ready for our conference run starting on November 26."