Heartbreak in college is inevitable. Heartbreak in sports is inevitable. The Slippery Rock men’s basketball team has been no stranger to heartache this season, but Monday night finally led to heartbreak.
Having lost seven games this season by eight points or less entering Monday night’s contest, Slippery Rock knew what it was like to lose close games. With five wins by less than five points, SRU also knew how to win close games.
Depending on which team showed up against No. 3 Pitt-Johnstown at the Rich Regan Family Court Monday in the first round of the PSAC Tournament, Slippery Rock could have staved off a broken heart. Instead, it was just heartbreak.
Despite outscoring Pitt-Johnstown from the field, Slippery Rock fell to UPJ 85-78 on the back of the Mountain Cats’ 25-of-27 shooting performance from the charity stripe, ending SRU’s season prior to the latter stages of the PSAC Tournament for the second straight season.
A surge just before the halftime buzzer helped Pitt-Johnstown build a 39-26 lead at the intermissions thanks in large part to five Mountain Cats scoring more than six points in the first half.
A quick 3-pointer from Pitt-Johnstown’s Josh Wise stretched the lead to 42-26 early in the second half. On the verge of letting the game slip away, Slippery Rock promptly surged ahead with a 14-0 run fueled by a dominant all-around performance from the trio of senior Micah Till, sophomore Amante Britt and freshman Lashon Lindsey.
Trailing 42-40 with 16:47 left in the contest, Slippery Rock would trade baskets with Pitt-Johnstown, never falling behind by more than nine points but unable to pull ahead either.
The second half effectively turned into the Donovan Walker show. The senior guard had shown flashes of brilliance at points during the season but never sustained runs of greatness. His run midway through the second half was greatness exemplified.
Walker scored five points in the first half, not far off his season average of 7.8 points per game.
At the 12:31 mark of the second half, Donovan knocked down his first shot of the second half, a jumper to pull Slippery Rock within seven points. Six seconds later, he nabbed a ball from Pitt-Johnstown star Fred Mulbah and set up junior Deontae Robertson for a 3-pointer. SRU trailed by just four points.
Fresh out of a media timeout, Walker finished a contested layup, drawing the foul and sinking the free throw. Slippery Rock trailed by one now.
Pitt-Johnstown responded with a 3-pointer, but Walker fought back with a 3-pointer of his own. The UPJ held at just one point. Once again, UPJ responded with a bucket, a layup this time, and Walker made them pay.
Walker knocked down another 3-pointer, bringing the game even. The first time since senior Will Robinson Jr. knotted the game with a layup at 5:40 left in the first half.
Over the next couple minutes, Pitt-Johnstown stretched the lead back out to four points, and once again, Walker nailed another 3-pointer to bring Slippery Rock within a point.
Walker didn’t score the go-ahead basket, but he did set it up, tossing a feed to Robertson who buried the go-ahead 3-pointer with 5:36 remaining in the game.
Over the roughly seven minute stretch of play, Walker scored 17 points, dished two assists, grabbed a rebound and nabbed a steal. But he wasn’t done yet.
Walker and Pitt-Johnstown traded jumpers, with Walker retaking the lead with 4:01 left.
However, over the final three minutes of the contest, Pitt-Johnstown converted 12-of-13 free throw opportunities to cement the victory.
Over the final 1:45 of the contest, Till, Britt and Lindsey each fouled out. For Till, it was an unceremonious finale to one of the greatest careers Slippery Rock has ever seen.
After shooting just 30% from the field and from beyond the arc in the first half, Slippery Rock exploded with 51% shooting from the field in the first half and a 9-of-16 performance from 3-point range.
Pitt-Johnstown shot just 50% over the course of the entire game and had a poor night from beyond the arc — 4-of-16 — washed out by a stellar 25-of-27 performance from the free-throw line — compared to Slippery Rock’s 11 made free throws.
SRU: Walker picked a great game to erupt for a career-best performance. Shooting 10-of-16 from the field and 4-of-8 from 3-point range, Walker led both teams with 27 points while five assists and two rebounds.
Robertson also turned in a season-best 22 points, courtesy of six 3-pointers.
Till, in the final game of his collegiate career, turned in one of his poorer performances on the season. Limited by foul trouble, Till scored just 10 points while grabbing two rebounds and nabbing two steals.
Robinson, in his final game, chipped in a modest five points in just 14 minutes of play while fellow senior Jared Armstrong did not play.
UPJ: John Paul Kromka led Pitt-Johnstown in scoring with 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Wise and Mulbah added 17 and 14 points, respectively, on similar yet not quite as efficient nights from the field.
SRU: Another Slippery Rock men’s basketball season has come to an end, and like always, it did not lack for theatrics at any point.
Finishing 15-14 (11-12 in the conference), Slippery Rock recorded a second consecutive winning season under the leadership of Ian Grady.
Till finished one of the most productive and illustrious careers in Slippery Rock history, capping off his three years at The Rock with 1,493 points, 714 rebounds, 124 assists, 127 steals and 118 blocks.
He joins former Rock star Myron Brown as the only players in school history to average 20 points per game over an entire career.
UPJ: Pitt-Johnstown will advance to play No. 2 Mercyhurst in the PSAC quarterfinals Wednesday in Erie, Pa.
Slippery Rock will head into the offseason and attempt to replace Till, Robinson, Armstrong and Walker, one of the strongest senior classes in on-court production in recent memory, by the time the season rolls around next October.