ALTOONA, Pa. – Penn State Altoona men's basketball pulled off an 85-84 upset of Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference opponent La Roche College on Saturday afternoon in the Adler Arena.
For Penn State Altoona (16-7, 12-4 AMCC), it was the team's second thrilling victory this week. Following Thursday's overtime win at local AMCC rival Mount Aloysius College, the Lions were able to knock off La Roche, the first place team in the conference, just two days later.
The Lions controlled the momentum for the majority of the game, using persistent offense and strong defense to build an 18-point lead midway through the second half. La Roche (17-6, 14-2) made a big run to climb back into the game, but Penn State Altoona was able to withstand a pair of last second shot attempts by the visitors to hold on for the one-point win.
"Once again, coaching is a roller coaster ride, and we went on a big one today. I couldn't be prouder that we were able to hold on and fend off one of the best teams – if not the best team – in the league and avenge our loss to them earlier this season, when they took it to us," said Penn State Altoona head coach David McGreal. "I felt that we did everything that we worked on very, very well early on and for the majority of the second half, when we continued to take away their strengths and attack their weaknesses. Everything was working well, and we're very lucky that we built up the lead that we did."
The Lions' Ishimeal Nance (Muscle Shoals, AL/Muscle Shoals) led all scorers with 23 points while adding seven rebounds, three steals, and two assists. Dequan Jackson (Philadelphia, PA/Murrell Dobbins) scored 20 points to go along with three assists and a pair of steals.
Rich Bouknight (Norristown, PA/Norristown) contributed 13 points and three boards, and Cameron Gardner-Nicholson (Philadelphia, PA/Boys' Latin Charter) led all players in the game with nine rebounds and three blocks while scoring six points.
La Roche got a team-high 20 points from Austin Hannes, while Ray Quan Phifer added 19 points and seven rebounds. Trell Thomas scored 14 points with seven boards, and Zach Gould put up 11 points.
"We got big performances from DJ and Ish, and Cam did a great job defensively, shutting down [La Roche's] Arnes Bajgora, who was averaging 21 points per game in his last four games. You don't see that in the box score, but that was huge that Cam was able to limit Arnes, who's one of their big scorers," said McGreal. "DJ also hit some big free throws down the stretch for us to help win it."
Penn State Altoona continued its recent trend of getting off to great starts at home, opening the game on a 7-0 run with buckets from Jackson and Nance and a three-pointer from Bouknight. Nance's trey at the 15-minute mark put the Lions up by 11 points, 18-7, and Trey Butterworth (Clarence, PA/Bald Eagle) connected from beyond the arc at 13:26 to extend his team's lead to 20-9.
The Lions continued to roll on offense later in the first half. Jackson's tip-in basket at 7:44 made it a 15-point game, 33-18, and Chucky Drummond (Royersford, PA/Spring-Ford) hit a three-pointer at 2:22 to boost the home team's lead to 45-29. Penn State Altoona went into the locker room up 45-32.
Penn State Altoona continued to execute efficiently on offense early in the second half. Layups from Jackson kept the Lions up by 15, 52-37, by the 16:59 mark. A pair of foul shots from Nance at 12:50 gave the home team its largest lead of the day, 59-41.
But the Lions offense slowed down over the next several minutes, allowing La Roche the opportunity to get back in the game. The Redhawks took advantages of that opportunity, narrowing Penn State Altoona's lead from 18 points to four over the next six minutes.
Phifer's tip-in and three-pointers from Hannes and Darius Lawrence cut La Roche's deficit to 12, 61-49, by the 10:52 mark. Two layups from Hannes and a three-pointer from Ryan Norkus brought Penn State Altoona's lead down to single digits, 61-56, by 9:13. Norkus' layup at 7:03 cut the Lions' advantage to 64-60, capping a 19-5 run for the Redhawks.
After Gould's jumper at 5:21 kept the difference at four points, 68-64, Penn State Altoona responded by outscoring La Roche 10-2 over the next three minutes. Buckets by Gardner-Nicholson, Jalen Archie-Davis (Norcross, GA/Norcross), and Jackson helped the Lions reestablish a double-digit lead, 74-64, by 3:58. Nance's layup and foul shot at 2:59 and a free throw from Archie-Davis at 2:26 made it 78-66.
But La Roche proved that it was capable of pulling off another run, outscoring the Lions 16-5 over the next two minutes to make it a one-point game. Thomas' four-point play on a trey and ensuing foul shot made it 79-72 at 1:47, and a three-pointer from Hannes cut Penn State Altoona's lead to six, 81-75, by 1:15. Phifer connected from beyond the arc with 38 seconds left to bring the Redhawks to within three, and his layup 18 seconds later narrowed the home team's lead to 83-82.
The teams traded points in their next possessions, with Jackson sinking two free throws for Penn State Altoona and Phifer making a layup to set the score at 85-84 with nine seconds remaining.
After the Lions committed a turnover with nine seconds to go, La Roche had two chances at a win. Phifer's three-pointer was off of the mark, but Thomas scooped up the offensive rebound and took a three-point shot attempt of his own at the buzzer. But Thomas' shot deflected off of the rim, and Penn State Altoona held on for the tight victory.
"Even when they made their first run at us, we battled back and got refocused on the defensive end first and foremost, and that turned into some scores to reestablish a solid lead, which we were able to hang on to," said McGreal. "Give credit to La Roche and their team and coaching staff for continuing to fight and really get a shot to win at the end. But thankfully, both attempts went awry."
Penn State Altoona outscored La Roche 42-32 in the paint, 23-15 off turnovers, and 14-6 in fastbreak situations, while the Redhawks held scoring advantages of 16-9 in second chance points and 33-17 in bench points.
With the victory, the Lions extended their home AMCC winning streak to 12 games. They also increased their record-setting season win total to 16.
"Personally, it was a rewarding win, being that La Roche was the last team that we haven't beaten in the conference since I've been coaching here. I'm very happy to finally beat a very good team who's led by a very good coach," said McGreal. "It's also rewarding that the guys recognized the importance of the game for seeding and standings in the AMCC. Now, we've got to refocus on Pitt-Bradford, who had an amazing win today over Penn State Behrend, and get ready to finish out our last two regular season games. We have one on the road, then we finish at home on February 17, when I hope everybody comes out to support us on senior day."
Penn State Altoona men's basketball travels to take on AMCC opponent Pitt-Bradford on Wednesday, February 14 at 5:00 p.m. After that, the Lions close out the regular season on Saturday, February 17 at 4:00 p.m. at home against Penn State Behrend for Altoona's Senior Day.