The Gannon University men’s basketball team finished the regular season with seven straight victories to capture the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division championship for the first since the 2008-09 campaign.
The Knights dealt Clarion University a 71-54 loss on Gannon’s Senior Night, Wednesday in the Hammermill Center. Junior guard and co-captain Adam Blazek led the team in scoring with 21 points and four assists.
Blazek set a new 3-point shooting career high with his red-hot stroke from behind the arc, hitting 5-of-7 from deep. Raphell Thomas-Edwards led the Knights on the boards while securing 14 rebounds and scoring 12 points.
Coach John Reilly said the Knights elevated their game this season, and put themselves in a good position to make a deep playoff push.
“This group has really gotten better as the year has progressed and basketball is such a long season,” Reilly said. “And it’s not necessarily what team has the most talented players, but it’s who plays the best together and is the most cohesive.”
Reilly’s team exhibited a balanced offensive attack in the Knights’ regular-season conclusion with a 75-64 victory over the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown Saturday. Gannon had four different players scoring in double figures against the Mountain Cats.
Reilly explained the importance of scoring evenly throughout the lineup and the seven-game win streak, which means his team is playing its best basketball at the right time.
“On our side we are very balanced one through nine so we have to be able to stop the other team’s top scorers, do a good job rebounding the basketball and we have to cut down on turnovers,” Reilly said. “If we do a good job in those three areas than we will have a good chance in any game we play, whether it be in the PSAC or NCAA tournament.”
The Knights have a bye Wednesday, but Reilly said the unusual lull in their very busy schedule will not be a problem for his squad.
“We would rather be playing,” Reilly said. “What we have decided to do, is Wednesday we are going to bring in PSAC officials and we are going to treat it like game day, and work out at 3 o’clock as we normally would.
“And that night we are going to play with officials in practice. We are going to do that again Saturday, and continue our same schedule.”
Blazek said he will use his experience from last season to properly prepare for the Knights’ PSAC quarterfinal game at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Hammermill Center. The opponent is unknown at this time, but the script will unfold as seeds are determined in the remainder of the season.
“We had a similar situation last year when we were a second seed in the PSAC and had a bye,” Blazek said. “This year it is crucial to remain humble and hungry; our mindset is aggressive and focused to go after the championship and punch our ticket to the NCAA tournament.”
Blazek said despite the continuation of game-like situations with PSAC referees in practice this week, the game drought offers as a time to improve and rest.
“We are continuing to push each other in practice,” Blazek said. “Taking care of the bangs and bruises of the season and hopefully getting a few film sessions in.”
The Knights aspire to be crowned the kings of the PSAC, but they also have their sights set on the ultimate prize – competing in the NCAA tournament. The Knights are currently slotted as the No. 6 team in the Atlantic Region, and the top eight teams are invited to the dance.
The Knights are all too aware of the dangers of having a strong season, but not finishing the way they had hoped in the PSAC tournament.
“Upsets are where the problems start,” Reilly said. “When a lower seed wins, it is going to bump one of the other teams out.”
Reilly said the team understands what it is going to take to be successful, and winning the PSAC tournament automatically gives the team a bid to the NCAA. C.J. Oldham, senior guard and co-captain, said he wants to leave behind a winning legacy when he graduates from Gannon.
“We don’t need to do anything special,” Oldham said. “Just need to keep doing what got us into the position we are in and that’s playing defense and playing together as a team.”