At the top of the arc, the forward slaps the basketball away from the 6’11”, 280-pound force in front of him. Dressed in Slippery Rock home whites, a green no. 11 sprawled across his back, he blows by the opponent, gathering it and dribbling it off of the hardwood twice as the victim of theft labors behind him.
He picks up the ball and leaps from the green “ROCK” printed on the floor in front of the basket, clutching it effortlessly in his right hand. His hangtime seems to last minutes before he jams the ball emphatically into the hoop.
If this play is any metaphor for the Slippery Rock University men’s team’s toil toward the postseason, the basketball has just been stolen. Standing in the way are five games in which The Green and White need to desperately defend the tournament spot they possess.
“We just need to build a little momentum,” second-year head coach Ian Grady said following a 71-64 win over Clarion. “Like tonight, finding ways to win. The main thing is just playing together as one collective unit and everyone making the commitment to defense.”
SRU has competed in arguably more arduous sector of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) this season. On Feb. 11, with five games left on The Rock’s schedule, all but one of the West Division’s half-dozen slots in the conference tournament had been claimed. In the East, only one of such berths were reserved.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where [the remaining games are] all important,” Grady said
Recovering from a historically uncharacteristic defeat at the talons of the archrival Crimson Hawks of Indiana (Pa.), Slippery Rock will not have it easy in the final turn. In the next two-and-a-half weeks, The Rock will clash with a trio of divisional foes jockeying for playoff seeding.
Pitt-Johnstown (19-5, 13-4 in PSAC) received eight votes in the most recent edition of the NABC Coaches Poll. Gannon, set to host Slippery Rock on Feb. 22, and Mercyhurst visiting the following week, are already slated to participate during the first week of March when the conference crown is thrown for grabs in Lock Haven.
The Rock holds at least a four-game advantage over Seton Hill and Edinboro, both of whom it will face off against within the next 15 days. With a win and losses by the Griffins and Fighting Scots in their next league games, Slippery Rock would lock down the final spot in the West.
Grady stresses being on the right side of 50/50 plays, “such as loose balls and charge takes” as factors in reaching, and advancing in, the postseason. He also touched upon consistency on the defensive end as being crucial.
Allowing 96 against IUP on Saturday evening wasn’t a step in the direction that Grady was hoping. Granted, the Crimson Hawks did shoot 44% from the field in what has developed into an alarming trend for The Rock defense, which ranks 14th in that department in the league.
On the other end of the court, Slippery Rock has coughed the ball up a combined 46 times in its past two contests. The opponents have converted these turnovers for 57 points. Three times in its last four games, the offense has shot below 35%.
Regardless, Grady, who became the third SRU coach to ever reach 30 wins within his first two years at the helm, remains steadfast.
“I’m always confident in my group, every game whether it’s the first time around or the second time around,” Grady said. “There are no easy wins.”
Of course, it will be important that redshirt senior Micah Till, who sat the first eight games of the campaign due to eligibility guidelines, make plays such as the highlight dunk in the final minutes of the first half against the Golden Eagles.
“I would say that I felt the best that I have all year,” Till said after the 33-point, 5-rebound performance against Clarion. “I felt really comfortable out there. I felt almost 100% and I couldn’t say that in any other game.”
Last year’s team, Grady said, peaked early.
After winning 17 of 19 games in the middle of the season, The Rock, sans an injured Till, was shown a quick exit from the PSAC tourney by Mercyhurst, who ended up reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
This time around, Grady revels in the likely role of being an underdog, rather than a two-seed.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs that we’ve had to overcome,” he said. “It’s who’s hot come playoff time.”
“Nobody’s going to believe in us except the people in the locker room with us,” Till added. “I believe when we play at our highest level, we can beat any team in the country at the D-II level. The talent is there.”