Joe Lombardi’s Crimson Hawks couldn’t help but make short work of their meal while dining with the governor. Call it a metaphor for what transpired during the winter of 2009-2010.
Lombardi’s IUP basketball team routinely made short work of the opposition and, in less time than he ever could have imagined, completed an epic turnaround. Only three years removed from the program’s losingest season ever, the Crimson Hawks celebrated the winningest (33-3). They captured conference and regional titles, advanced to the NCAA Division II championship game for the first time in school history, played on national television, and were invited to Harrisburg by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.
A feast at the executive mansion seemed altogether fitting, given how IUP devoured so many opponents this year. “When you get the right kids that are willing to play for something greater than themselves, sometimes you can catch a little magic in a bottle,” said Lombardi, who was named the Division II Coach of the Year by Basketball Times magazine. “It was like a storybook season. I couldn’t have written the script any better, up to the last day.”
Cal Poly Pomona denied IUP a fairy tale finish, rolling to a 65-53 victory in the title game at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. Yet just reaching the final was in itself a laudable feat.
Head coach Joe Lombardi huddles with Darryl Webb (left foreground), Thomas Young (right), and, standing left to right, Julian Sanders, Danny Ayebo, and Joe Rocco.
“Coach Lombardi said it best: At the end of the season there’s only one team that’s going to be happy, that’s going to go out with a win. We weren’t that team, but we were the second-place team,” said senior guard Thomas Young. “There are a lot of Division II schools out there , so to be in the top two, that’s definitely nothing to hang our heads over.”
Hanging heads were the prevailing image in 2006-07, after Lombardi left a high-profile position as Pitt coach Jamie Dixon’s right-hand man to take over a program that, due to infractions committed by the previous coach, faced probation and scholarship restrictions. Junior forward Darryl Webb, then sitting out the season as a redshirt, cringed on the sidelines as the Crimson Hawks lurched to a 6-21 record, the school’s worst ever in terms of both losses and winning percentage. “Being part of the team, that was miserable,” Webb said. “It was miserable for the coaches, for the players, for the managers—everyone.”
Lombardi, a master recruiter, sparked a revival by attracting top-notch talent to campus. IUP improved to 13-15 in his second season and to 22-8 the next. The Crimson Hawks figured to soar again in 2009–2010, especially after a confidence-building preseason exhibition tour in which they held their own against three Atlantic Coast Conference teams—Maryland, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech—that wound up in the NCAA tournament. “The ACC trip played a huge role in our success,” Young said. “We didn’t win any games, but we competed. After taking Georgia Tech into overtime, on their court, we knew we could play with anyone in Division II.”
“You covered yourselves with glory,” Rendell said.
The Crimson Hawks rarely stumbled en route to claiming PSAC West, PSAC, and Atlantic Region championships. They played smothering defense, outrebounded foes by an average of 8.6 per game, the fifth-best margin in the nation; played unselfishly on offense; and, perhaps most important, never seemed to falter in the final minutes of tight games. For example, after St. Cloud (Minn.) State rallied to tie IUP with 2:54 left in their Elite Eight semifinal matchup, the Crimson Hawks responded by scoring on seven of their last eight possessions to ice a 76-70 victory.
“I think our team had a very high level of confidence, even a sense of bravado, going into the last minutes of games, where they just believed in themselves,” Lombardi said. “They knew they would find a way in the end, and they usually did.”
Young and Webb invariably stepped up in those critical moments. Young, named the PSAC Player of the Year and the MVP of the conference and regional tournaments, led the Crimson Hawks by scoring 16.0 points per game and provided unwavering leadership. Webb scored at a 15.2 clip and pushed his career total to 1,392 points, good for sixth place on the all-time IUP charts with a year still to play. He also led the PSAC in rebounding (10.4) and set school records for single-season (376) and career rebounds (890).
Both were named to the Division II Bulletin All-America fourth team, making IUP the only school with two players among the twenty best in the land. Webb had already brought the Crimson Hawks national exposure when his two rim-rattling dunks against Edinboro on February 3 ranked fifth and eighth on that night’s top ten Plays of the Day on ESPN’s SportsCenter
. Sophomore guard Ashton Smith made his own SportsCenter appearance with a much longer shot: He buried a seventy-five-footer that beat the halftime buzzer against Fairmont (W.Va.) State in the regional quarterfinals.
“It’s just so rare for teams at this level to get on SportsCenter,” Lombardi said. “I was at a Division I program the other day, and they haven’t been on SportsCenter in four or five years. We had three clips just this year. Unbelievable.” As was IUP’s charge through the postseason. The Crimson Hawks knocked off Gannon, East Stroudsburg, and Kutztown to capture the PSAC tournament title for the first time since 2004, earned an Elite Eight berth by winning three times in the Atlantic Region tourney—the clincher an 84-72 victory over West Liberty (W.Va.) State—and then dispatched Valdosta (Ga.) State and St. Cloud State in Springfield to reach the championship game.
Unfortunately, they were no match for Cal Poly in the nationally televised final. IUP fell behind 8-0 at the outset, trailed 35-25 at halftime, and never did mount a serious threat. But one setback couldn’t diminish what Lombardi felt for his players. “I told the guys prior to the game, ‘You’re already champions in my eyes. It’s just a matter of who’s going home with the trophy,’” he said. “Getting to play on Saturday on CBS was such a feeling of already reaching the mountaintop.”
Indeed, IUP’s climb to within sight of the summit so impressed Rendell that he invited the Crimson Hawks to the governor’s mansion, where the fare included a bountiful lunch and an abundance of praise. “You covered yourselves with glory,” said Rendell, who then led his guests on a tour.
Lombardi couldn’t have imagined such a day in his first season at IUP, when the program was starved for victories. The winter of 2009–2010, in contrast, featured a veritable feast of achievements: school and conference records for victories, three championships, a national runner-up trophy, and plaudits from none other than the state’s chief executive. It was a magical thrill ride the Crimson Hawks won’t soon forget.
“To accomplish all that we did: that’s definitely something I’ll always keep in my memory,” Young said. “We stamped our name in IUP basketball history.”
More from the Summer 2010 Issue of IUP Magazine
The 2009–2010 men’s basketball team won more games than any other and competed on nationwide television for the Division II crown.
In six decades, the ROTC program at IUP has produced nearly two thousand U.S. Army second lieutenants, not to mention eight generals.
Legacy Gala, Ruddock Hall, who’s in that photo, and more
Highlights about IUP faculty members, past and present
The latest IUP player to be picked in the NFL draft, plus other newsworthy IUP athletes
IUP Magazine Web Exclusives
June 30, 2010
What distinguishes our Western Pennsylvania dialect?
May 12, 2010
Promoting Native American awareness at IUP.
April 21, 2010
Explore the 270 acres of the Co-op Recreational Park and the IUP Sailing Base at Yellow Creek State Park.