Men’s basketball sets high expectations

Marco Cicchino, Staff writer

The Mercyhurst men’s basketball team finished the most successful season in the program’s history during the 2014-15 season, finishing 17-5 in the PSAC competition and 20-7 overall, surviving Selection Sunday and advancing to their first-ever NCAA Division II tournament.

Their second-place finish in the PSAC West is tied with the 2010-11 team for the highest in seven PSAC seasons. The team’s 20 total wins is the second time in the last five years they have reached that ranking. Reigning West Coach of the Year Gary Manchel holds that title for a reason.

The team has made six consecutive postseason appearances and outperformed expectations numerous times last season. It was announced on Thursday, Oct. 29, that last year’s performance has the Lakers topping the West preseason poll for this coming season.

The Lakers’ overall records were good enough to earn them the second spot in the West Division, tied with Indiana but owning the tiebreaker, thanks to a 58-55 win over the then No. 16 ranked Crimson Hawks at the Mercyhurst Athletic Center on Wednesday, Feb. 11. They are the only team to defeat the Hawks in each of the last five years, beating a ranked Indiana twice and snatching a 65-62 road upset of the then fifth-ranked Hawks on Dec. 3 of last year.

Indiana gained revenge on the Lakers in more important competition, the No. 24 team eliminating Manchel’s squad with a 67-59 victory in PSAC quarterfinal on March 3. The Lakers were then allocated into the fifth seed in the NCAA Atlantic Regional, but fell 68-63 to Fairmont State in their opening contest. “Everything we work for is to be better on last year,” said senior Gerrae Williams. “We’ll just do that.”

The Lakers posted their tenth consecutive winning season, a school record. They rattled off separate winning streaks of seven, six and five games, all but three within the conference. Their 12 home wins is the second time in three years they have reached that level and have double-digit wins at home in four of the last five years. They also went 8-5 on the road for the second straight season and third season in five years.

On the court last season, the Lakers made great statistical improvements from the 2013-14 campaign. The team averaged 66.6 points per game while holding opponents to 62.2, the eighth-lowest mark in the nation. This is the second straight year their defense has been outstanding. In 2013-14 they were second with just 60.3 points allowed.

The Lakers were even better in PSAC play, limiting damage to just 59.8 points per game and held five opponents-Gannon, Seton Hill, Notre Dame (OH), Kutztown and Edinboro-to 53 points or below.

Offensively, production was up 4.3 points per game, and the Lakers hit the 80-point mark seven times, including a 90-84 overtime win at Daemen College on Nov. 24.

“We [have] to play more defense,” said Williams. “We have to compete every game. Work on it in practice and it will transfer over to the game. We play a lot of defense, and it leads to a lot of buckets.”

Individual highlights were abound last season, an all-balanced attack and defense leading the way all year. As a junior, Williams led the team with 10.5 points per game en-route to an All-West Second Team selection, while junior Damon Jones scored at least 15 points on seven occasions and shot 50.5 percent from the field.

Senior James Ewing led the team with 5.4 rebounds per game and recorded the only two double-doubles last season, pulling off 12 and 13 with 11 and 10 rebounds, respectively, the latter in a 72-59 rout of West Chester on Dec. 16.

Meanwhile, then-junior Jean Onana led the squad by shooting 39.1 percent from downtown and registering a .904 free-throw percentage, recorded a single-game-high 27 points in an 82-60 win over Mansfield on Jan. 7, and scored the game-winning triple with two seconds remaining in the second Indiana win. Senior Callon Dalley also settled in nicely in a supporting role, leading the team with 30.8 minutes per game, 66 assists and 39 steals.

Williams is confident in his teammates, commenting, “I’m just leading my team, I have a good group of guys behind me, so I just lead them, work hard, set examples and we’ll get it done this year.”

The Lakers enter the 2015-16 season with new and higher expectations after being selected fourth in the preseason poll and topping the preseason West poll for the first time since joining the conference in 2008.

“Everything we work for is to be better on last year,” said Williams. “We’ll just do that. [It’s] just to come work hard every day, bring energy every day, and hopefully it’s contagious in my team.”

Williams also told the fans to look out for the basketball team. “We have a lot of fun. It’s anxious, we’re ready to play…so we need an opponent. Friday [Nov. 13] is going to be good, and hopefully we’ll pull out the win.”

The Lakers open the 2015-16 season with a four-game homestand, hosting Houghton College on Friday, Nov. 13 before opening PSAC play against IUP five days later.