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Ascent to the Summit

Junior guard Brandon Norfleet on the offensive

Junior guard Brandon Norfleet on the offensive. Photo: Keith Boyer

In a seeming paradox, the IUP basketball team lost in the national championship game and yet, in a sense, emerged victorious.

The scoreboard at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana, might have indicated the Crimson Hawks fell short in the final, but coach Joe Lombardi took solace in the fact that IUP beat out 308 Division II teams just to get there, a destination he likened to a mountaintop few ever reach.

And that was an achievement worth celebrating.

His Hawks finished 31-7—the second-most wins in school history, claimed the Atlantic Region tournament title, and knocked off three regional top seeds in the NCAA tournament. Florida Southern finally brought a halt to IUP’s exhilarating postseason thrill ride with a 77-62 victory before a national television audience and a spirited contingent of Hawks fans at the Ford Center.

“The jump from the semifinals to the finals in Division II is so great—greater than any other level—because you go from limited national exposure to all of a sudden playing on CBS in front of two or three million people,” Lombardi said. “So making it to Saturday is like making it to the mountaintop. Unfortunately, only one team gets to stay.”

That team was favored Florida Southern (36-1). The Mocs seized control early and never allowed IUP to find a rhythm, denying the Hawks a storybook finish to their transcendent season.

“Guys were sad after the game because we really thought we were going to win,” said senior guard Shawn Dyer. “But years from now, we’re going to look back and say we had a great year and we made it to the national championship game. Yeah, we lost, but there were a lot of teams that didn’t have that opportunity. We were blessed to be in that position.”

Dyer, a transfer from West Liberty who had played for the Hilltoppers in the 2014 title game, joined All-America guard Devante Chance to give IUP an explosive one-two punch in the backcourt. Chance, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Athlete of the Year, finished his career as the school’s all-time assist leader (512) and led the Hawks in scoring (16.5 points per game).

The Hawks had an NCAA championship game veteran in Shawn Dyer, a transfer from West Liberty. Photo: Keith Boyer

The Hawks had an NCAA championship game veteran in Shawn Dyer, a transfer from West Liberty. Photo: Keith Boyer

“This team had a great inner confidence,” Lombardi said. “Most of that came from Devante. And the other area of confidence came from Shawn Dyer’s having played and performed in big games—the year before, he scored 30 in a national semifinal. So when you have two veteran guys like that, who both had success under the microscope, you know you can play with anybody on a national level.”

The Hawks also possessed a legitimate low-post presence in junior forward Daddy Ugbede, a transfer from Drake; a core of experienced, battle-tested holdovers from the previous year’s 24-5 team; and a bond that enabled them to weather adversity of every sort.

“Right from the start, we had chemistry,” said junior guard Brandon Norfleet. “We were definitely a close-knit team. We did everything off the court together, so it made it that much easier for us to connect on the court. When you have chemistry like that and everybody has fun playing together, then you can do something special.”

Like pile up 31 victories—a total exceeded only by Lombardi’s 2009-10 team, also a national runner-up—and blossom into an indomitable force come playoff time.

“I’m a big believer that chemistry is a big reason why some teams really evolve during the course of the season and actually peak in March,” Lombardi said. “This team had guys on it who had a selflessness, who were committed to each other, who were going to grow closer through the ups and downs that come along.”

The Hawks were unbowed even after taking a veritable dagger to the heart in the PSAC championship game. They squandered a late five-point lead and lost 69-66 to Gannon when Girbran Smith buried a three-pointer with 2.4 seconds left.

“We were just so hurt after that game,” Dyer said. “Tears in the locker room, anger, frustration, all these emotions, because we felt like we let one slip away. But we used that as motivation, as fuel, and we found another gear.”

The resurgent Hawks dispatched Glenville State, Slippery Rock, and host West Liberty in the Atlantic Region tournament. The top-seeded Hilltoppers had ousted IUP from the NCAAs three times since 2011 and won 119 of their last 123 home games, but the Hawks scoffed at the odds against them and prevailed 77-74 in a hostile environment to capture the regional title. Norfleet sank the game-winning three-pointer with 7.4 seconds left, and Dyer, in a joyous homecoming, poured in 23 points to earn tournament Most Outstanding Player honors and propel IUP into the Elite Eight.

Tevin Hanner, junior forward

Tevin Hanner, junior forward. Photo: Keith Boyer

“We were the underdogs coming into that game, and we knew nobody expected us to actually win it,” Chance said. “But winning the way that we did—with a good amount of poise, taking care of the basketball, maximizing possessions offensively, and getting stops defensively—we knew if we could continue to play like that, we had a chance to win the national title.”

The Hawks maintained their momentum in Evansville, vanquishing Azusa Pacific (69-65) in the quarterfinals and Tarleton State (72-68) in the semifinals to secure a championship game berth opposite Florida Southern. Alas, the Mocs quickly dashed their dreams of Division II supremacy. Behind long-range marksman Kevin Capers, Florida Southern canned its first seven three-point attempts and bolted into a double-digit lead. The Hawks were reeling even before CBS went to its first commercial break.

“That wasn’t the first time this season a team came out hot on us, but eventually we got stops and they cooled off,” Chance said. “No one got worried, because we were a good come-from-behind team. But that team just never cooled off.”

The Hawks were unable to make up much ground against an opponent exhibiting such a torrid touch. They closed the gap to six points early in the second half, but Florida Southern soon regained command with an 11-2 run and was never threatened again.

“It hurts losing any championship game, because you work so hard to get to that point,” Norfleet said. “But at the end of the year, there are only two teams playing, and to be one of them, to accomplish that, feels great.”

Yes, the Hawks might have been losers on the scoreboard, but by reaching the mountaintop, they were able to savor a view few teams ever behold.

“It was gratifying to lead a group of young men on a journey to live their dream, to provide this shining moment not only to IUP, but to the alumni and the Indiana community,” Lombardi said. “That’s a very fulfilling reward in itself. We all like to hope that someday we can be the last one standing. But at the end of the journey, we appreciate the opportunity to share in that moment with not only people who care about IUP basketball, but people who care about and have a great sense of pride in IUP as an institution.”

Top 10 IUP Teams by Wins
Record Year
Joe Lombardi
NCAA tournament, final
Joe Lombardi NCAA tournament, final
Kurt Kanaskie
NCAA tournament, semifinals
Gary Edwards
NCAA tournament, semifinals
Kurt Kanaskie
NCAA tournament, quarterfinals
Joe Lombardi NCAA tournament, Sweet 16
Joe Lombardi
NCAA tournament, Sweet 16
Peck McKnight
NCAA tournament, Sweet 16
Gary Edwards
NCAA tournament, quarterfinals
Carl Davis
NCAA tournament, Sweet 16

*Three other teams also recorded 24 wins, but those teams lost more games.

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