Suddenly, the Lakers are struggling. Even so, one would not know by watching coach Gary Manchel’s basketball squad.
After rattling off eight straight wins over the calendar flip into 2016, including seven PSAC victories and a low-scoring win over Gannon in the inaugural Porreco Pride of Erie Game, Mercyhurst (15-7, 12-6) has lost three of their last four games, and allowed Indiana (18-5, 15-3) to replace them atop the PSAC West.
The Crimson Hawks have won their last 12 contests, including a perfect 8-0 January, and toppled the Lakers 68-66 in Indiana last Wednesday, Feb. 3.
The Lakers eight-game run came to an end with a loss to upset-minded Slippery Rock (12-11, 7-10), and now they trail the Hawks by three games with four left to play.
The Lakers are still one of the premier defensive units in the country, second in all of Division II at 59.5 points per game, but have uncharacteristically allowed at least 64 points in each of their last three losses. In their last two games, they fell to Indiana and Clarion, by a combined seven points.
“What happened was, it came down to the last couple minutes of both games,” said senior Kayode Ajenifuja.
“We didn’t box out, didn’t rebound. But both games were on us, really. It was because we didn’t play how we usually do. We didn’t want it more than the other team, so we just [have to get] more focused and more ready.”
Against Slippery Rock on Jan. 27, the Lakers allowed 47 points in the second half alone after limiting the Pride to just 17 in the first half while only tallying 16 themselves.
In fact, not only have the Lakers scored under their season-average 71.2 points in six of the last seven and each of the recent three losses, opponents have outscored Manchel’s squad by an average of 9.3 points per game in the three losses, compared to a surplus of 13.5 in their four wins dating back to the Pride of Erie Game.
Before this Slippery Rock contest, the Lakers had not been outscored in the second half since Saturday, Dec. 19, against Clarion.
“We haven’t been scoring the ball like we usually do, so [we need to] shoot the ball better,” Ajenifuja said.
Ajenifuja is currently third on the team with 12.3 points per game. He hit 20 against Clarion and Edinboro and has hit double-digits in eleven of his last 13 games.
Against Clarion on Saturday, Feb. 6, Manchel saw a 12-point halftime lead evaporate as the Golden Eagles rattled off 15 straight points in a span of 5:14 as part of a larger 22-6 run to open the second half. They later scored seven straight points to finish a 12-4 spurt and open up a 60-53 lead with 1:30 remaining.
The 5-point Clarion win, 67-62, was highlighted by 20 points of 17 Laker turnovers—four by Damon Jones—and an 18-9 second-chance advantage.
The recent stretch could have not been timed at a worse part of the season, with the Hawks soaring and surprising Edinboro (12-9, 11-7) just two games behind the Lakers for second in the West. The Fighting Scots have lost three in a row but won 10 of their previous 14, a stretch that began at the Mercyhurst Athletic Center with a 77-67 upset on Friday, Dec. 1.
They then took down the top two teams in the East, first East Stroudsburg and then a 69-66 win at number 20 West Chester four days later, and went 6-3 in conference play before falling to the Lakers.
However, the Lakers’ final four games are quite soft, hosting Pitt-Johnstown on Saturday, Feb. 13, then welcoming Seton Hill and California before heading up to the Hammermill Center for crosstown rival Gannon on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
Last year, the Golden Knights swept the Lakers, including a 55-46 win at Hammermill en-route to the West regular-season title. “I say the scoring, we just [have] to be able to score more,” said junior H’ian Hale.
“We have to be able to match physicality with physicality. They play hard, we have to play harder.”
Ajenifuja says a highlight of the Lakers’ dynamic is an impromptu breakout game.
“Anybody is able to go off any time, so you never know. You just [have] to come ready and find the hot hand. It won’t just be one person, it could be two people [or three]. Somebody can score, somebody can be rebounding, somebody can be assisting, so it’s a team effort. These couple losses are actually like a wake-up call for us. It’s better to have them now than in the playoffs,” Ajenifuja said.
Tip off on Saturday, Feb. 13, is at 3 p.m. in the MAC.