On Monday night, the third-seeded Slippery Rock men’s basketball team welcomed Mercyhurst University into Morrow Field House for a first-round Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference playoff tilt. It was the fourth time in seven years that The Rock met the Lakers in the PSAC tourney, and the green-and-white equaled the all-time series, which dates back to the 1971-72 campaign, with a 61-58 victory. More significantly, SRU earned a quarterfinal matchup with two-seed Gannon.
The teams split their two meetings in the regular season, last seeing each other in early February. The Lakers seemingly picked up where they left off in Erie in their seven-point triumph almost three weeks earlier, taking the lead 1:02 into the contest and holding it until well past halftime. In a low-scoring first period affair, The Rock trailed for all but 57 seconds and was held to only 25.8% shooting from the field by the league’s second-ranked scoring defense.
“We kept saying the defense was playing well and that we just needed the offense to get going,” head coach Kevin Reynolds said. “They only had 25 points at the end of the first half and they only had ten hoops. They only had 19 hoops for the game, so our D was on point.”
Guard Lorenzo Collier and reserve player Connor Polce led the scoring in the game’s first twenty minutes, both notching three buckets and combining for 16 of the Lakers’ 25 points. Collier, coming off a 39 point effort at Edinboro on Saturday, and Polce, subbed in at 8:58, sunk a pair of three-pointers, helping Mercyhurst enter the break with a four-point advantage.
The Lakers lead at seven early in the second period, redshirt sophomore Micah Till, who connected on only one of his first nine shot attempts, kicked off a 21-5 run that gave The Rock a 48-40 lead with over eight minutes remaining. Two triples from Till during the sequence gave Slippery Rock momentum that it carried to the finish line, claiming a 61-58 triumph.
Till completed his 21st double-double of the season, pulling down 13 rebounds and finishing with a game-high 24 points. In a second half in which he put down seven of his final nine shots, Till also became the first player in school history to record 600 points and 350 rebounds in a single season.
“Any time you win those types of awards or break records that are here it says a lot about not only [Micah], but about the other guys on the team because he can’t do it himself,” Reynolds stated. “To get those records and accomplishments in a winning cause, I think it makes it even more special, not only for him, but for the school,” he added.
The Slippery Rock defense smothered Mercyhurst in the game, allowing the Lakers to shoot only 28.4% from the field. Senior center Cristal Malalu, who recorded four blocks and six rebounds during the game, praised his opponent, saying, “It felt great [to get a win]. It’s the first round of the playoffs and you get a team like [Mercyhurst], I mean, to Mercyhurst’s credit, they’ve got good players, so you got to come out and really play against them.”
In the win, SRU earned a trip to the Hammerhill Center to face off against Gannon for the second time in four days. Another familiar postseason foe, Slippery Rock ran into the Golden Knights in the PSAC quarterfinals in three straight seasons from 2013 to 2015. In the last postseason meeting the teams had, the Rock fell to the eventual conference champions 71-45.
Malalu recognized the challenge ahead of his team, stating, “They’ve got a good team, and they’ve got a very good home crowd, so it’s going to be a very competitive game for us.” Reynolds echoed the comment, “We just have to be ready to go. It’ll be a hostile environment…It’s one of the games Gannon circles. Whenever Slippery Rock comes into town, it’s always the biggest crowd for that school…and that’s a credit to our program. We like that.”