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Making the Cut

Back in January, Gary Edwards couldn’t have envisioned cutting down the nets in March. His basketball team was reeling, staggered by injuries, a key defection, and a succession of stinging defeats. Winning the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference crown? The Indians, it seemed, would be hard pressed to even make the playoffs.

But in this crucible of adversity, a champion was forged.

The Indians won eight of nine games in a sizzling stretch run and blew like a whirlwind through the PSAC tournament, capping their exhilarating late-season surge with an 83-74 victory over Kutztown. For the third time in five years, IUP reigned supreme in the conference, an exalted status not even a clairvoyant could have foreseen six weeks before.

Donovan Thomas

Donovan Thomas

“How you react to things that happen to you many times determines the outcome, I think,” said Edwards, whose team lost to fourth-ranked Pfeiffer (N.C.) in the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament to finish 21-10. “We chose to keep working and have optimism that the challenges would make us stronger, and I really think they did. If we had not had to go through the things we did this year, I don’t know if we would’ve been a good enough team, a strong enough team, to win the championship.”

The Indians were repeatedly jarred by bumps on the road to the title. A shoulder injury sidelined projected starting guard Hassan Robinson for the entire season. Forward G.J. Macon missed ten games with a broken nose and then an ankle injury. Forward Donovan Thomas never fully recovered from preseason knee surgery. And senior center Fannar Olafsson did not return to school after Christmas break, preferring to remain in his native Iceland and launch a professional basketball career.

“Muhammad Ali said, ‘The will is more important than the skill,’ and I think this team was a great example of that, more so than any other we’ve had that’s won a championship.”

IUP lost five of seven games at one point, the lowlights a dispiriting 100-83 home loss to Clarion, a 61-60 setback at Slippery Rock on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, and a 93-61 defeat at California. The Indians were tottering like a punch-drunk boxer. They checked in with a 13-8 record and seemed poised to check out of the playoff race with a 3-4 mark in the PSAC West.

“There were a lot of times during the season that it would’ve been pretty easy to throw in the towel,” Edwards said. “Getting shellacked by Clarion—to have a team just annihilate us on our home court—that was a tough night. The Slippery Rock loss was a heartbreaker. And never being in the game against California, our big rival, and losing by thirty, that’s not an easy thing to come back from.”

Ed Peterson

Ed Peterson

But the Indians did just that. They redoubled their efforts, rising early to practice every day at 6:30 a.m., then returning to the gym in the afternoon. Small wonder Edwards cites this team as the hardest working he’s ever coached. The Indians’ work ethic had to be exceptional, for their talent surely wasn’t. Granted, there were skilled players: Sophomore guard Ed Peterson (10.6 points per game) earned first-team All-PSAC West honors and Thomas (a team-best 12.3 scoring average) and Macon (12.0 points and a team-leading 7.4 rebounds per game) were second-team selections. But no one on the roster possessed the physical gifts of, say, Mike Beckles or Dennis Mims, who spearheaded the charge when IUP claimed PSAC titles in 2000 and 2002.

“This team had more heart than it had talent,” Edwards noted. “Muhammad Ali said, ‘The will is more important than the skill,’ and I think this team was a great example of that, more so than any other we’ve had that’s won a championship. Their will was stronger than their skill. In my book, will is what wins championships.”

Two tactical changes played a role, too. At midseason Edwards scrapped his team’s up-tempo zone press—a gambling defense that forced numerous turnovers but afforded the opposition too many open shots—in favor of a conventional man-to-man. In addition, the Indians turned their offensive focus inward, especially after Macon returned to the lineup on January 31.

“We became much more committed to our inside game, really by necessity because we were shooting it so lousy from outside,” Edwards said. “We decided to sink or swim with our big guys, our hosses. They became warriors and really rose to the challenge down the stretch.”

The revived Indians rode a wave of momentum into the PSAC tournament. They dispatched Edinboro 72-56 in the quarterfinals before pulling off a jaw-dropping 73-71 upset of Cheyney in the semifinals—on the Wolves’ home court, no less. Edwards marveled at the way his indomitable bunch bucked odds longer than Pinocchio’s nose.

“I felt Cheyney was head and shoulders talent-wise above us,” he said. “Ryan Sydney scored 1,400 points at Boston College before transferring there—he’s coming off the bench for them. Anthony Frazier, there’s three NBA scouts at that game to look at him. Their starting center is 6-10—we have Gary Franklin, who’s 6-2, guarding him. With all that and with their crowd behind them, logic would say they were going to win that game. But the heart our team showed was remarkable. Anybody who has any allegiance to IUP in any way would’ve been so proud of those guys.”

Their coronation as conference champions took place the following night. Junior guard Brian Kizzie scored the first seven points in a late 9-0 run that put IUP in front to stay, and Macon contributed game highs of twenty-one points and sixteen rebounds to secure tourney MVP honors. Edwards & Co. culminated their euphoric celebration by cutting down the nets.

Six weeks before, only a Pollyanna would’ve dared predict such an outcome. Back then, the Indians were more pretender than contender, a sub-.500 team in their division, seemingly headed nowhere.

But their journey was just beginning. For in little more than a month, the Indians traveled from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of the PSAC.