Cast of Character

The IUP basketball team celebrated one of the greatest seasons in school history, all the while celebrating its diversity.

Leon Piper, Wes Layton, and Keenan Holmes

Left to right: Leon Piper, Wes Layton, and Keenan Holmes

The Indians posted a 28-5 record and advanced to the NCAA Division II semifinals, spurred by players who hailed from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Puerto Rico, from rural Kansas and metropolitan New York, from North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. They came from all points of the compass to lead IUP in one direction—west, toward Evansville, Ind., site of the Elite Eight.

Despite their disparate backgrounds, the Indians united to seek a common goal—the national championship. That they fell only two victories short is a testament to their togetherness.

“This probably was the closest team since I’ve been here,” said sixth-year coach Gary Edwards. “Right from the beginning, they bonded with each other. I noticed they would see each other on campus and there was always a handshake or a little hug. We were very much like a family, I thought, always there for each other. That, as much as anything, helped us do the things that we did this year.”

What they achieved compares favorably to any team in IUP history. The Indians claimed the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division title, won the PSAC tournament championship, then swept through the East Region tournament to land a berth in the Elite Eight. IUP defeated Northwest Missouri State 78-72 in the national quarterfinals before its title hopes crumbled in an 82-52 semifinal loss to Metropolitan State (Colo.), the eventual champion.

But just getting that far—matching the 1995 team for the deepest advance in a national tournament—was cause for applause. After all, 280 Division II programs fixed their sights on Evansville when practice commenced in October. The odds against IUP reaching the semifinals seemed as long as Methuselah’s beard, especially given that the Indians weren’t even picked to win their division in the PSAC preseason coaches poll.

Gary Edwards

Head coach Gary Edwards

“It’s quite an accomplishment,” Edwards said. “There are a lot of great Division II programs that have never reached the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four. And IUP has reached the Final Four twice and the Elite Eight four times. That puts us in pretty select company.”

The latest sojourn to the Elite Eight was spearheaded by a collection of high-profile transfers, most notably 6-foot-9 senior center Dennis Mims, a North Carolina native who played his first three seasons at Division I Virginia
 
Tech. Mims, a physical force in the paint, shrugged off constant double teams and occasional maulings to average a team-high 16.6 points per game. What’s more, he led the PSAC and ranked sixth nationally in rebounds (11.3, the best figure at IUP in twenty-six years) and finished sixth nationally in blocked shots, his total of ninety nearly doubling the old school record. Mims earned All-PSAC first-team honors and was a third-team selection on several All-America squads.

“He was a large figure in the middle,” Edwards said. “It was very hard for teams to play Dennis one-on-one, so they had to help on him, which in turn allowed other people on our team to get open. His presence, I think, enabled us to realistically be a player on the national scene.”

The other newcomers made substantial contributions as well. Senior forward Leon Piper, a transfer from Delaware State by way of Queens, N.Y., averaged 12.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and earned second-team All-PSAC honors. Senior guard Wes Layton, a Kansan who transferred from Campbell, scored at a 9.5 clip and finished third in the PSAC in assists (4.2). Sophomore forward Fannar Olafsson, a member of Iceland’s national team, transferred from South Carolina Spartanburg and provided muscle and intensity inside. And forward Felix Davila, a freshman from Puerto Rico, sparked IUP off the bench.

The new arrivals joined two key holdovers—first-team All-PSAC guard Aaron Faulkner, a senior who averaged 15.8 points per game and ranked fourth in the PSAC in assists (4.0), and junior forward Keenan Holmes (7.5 points per game)—to form a talented nucleus. Yet talent alone isn’t what made the Indians so formidable. This was a team that had character in abundance. When games and nerves were tighter than a Hollywood facelift, IUP invariably showed its mettle—its heart, if you will.

“There are a lot of teams that have talent, but when you’re in those close games, those championship games, heart is what makes the difference between winning and losing,” Edwards said. “Heart enables you to have a big defensive stop or dive on the floor after a loose ball or get a rebound that logically you shouldn’t get. Certainly you have to have talent—that has to be your base so that you can show heart. But heart is what wins championships, what enables you to cut the nets down. This team, time after time, showed that.”

Especially in the postseason. For example, the Indians pulled out an 86-81 victory at Cheyney in the PSAC semifinals when foul trouble and Mims’s absence—he was serving a one-game suspension—could have spelled their doom. IUP dispatched California 71-68 the next day for the conference championship, then beat Charleston (91-81) and Salem International (85-81) a week later at Memorial Field House to win the East Region crown and punch its ticket to Evansville.

Alas, the Indians turned in a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance at the Elite Eight. They hummed like a Jaguar against Northwest Missouri State, then sputtered like a jalopy in the loss to Metro State. IUP had nearly as many turnovers (14) as points (15) in a wretched first half that was as painful to watch as a Pauly Shore movie.

“The regret from that game is not that we lost it. The regret is that we didn’t play as well as we could have in that setting,” Edwards said. “Our guys were disappointed after that game, but when you sit back and you look at the big picture, you can see how special this season was.”

Indeed, only one other IUP team advanced as far in a national tournament. Only one other IUP team won more games. And only two other teams in IUP history achieved the 2002 title trifecta: PSAC West, PSAC, and East Region championships.

The Indians soared, and they did it with players from six different states, from Puerto Rico, from Iceland. No previous IUP team featured such a diverse cast of characters.

And few demonstrated the kind of character—or togetherness—that launched the Indians to such lofty heights.