BY CORY NIDOH
Asst. Sports Editor
The East Stroudsburg University Men’s Basketball team won the 2013-2014 PSAC Championship by defeating their PSAC East rival West Chester Golden Rams with a score of 92-80 Sunday afternoon at Koehler Fieldhouse.
The Warriors, the second ranked team in the nation, concluded the Championship Tournament with the victory over the Golden Rams in front of the ESU faithful that packed Koehler Fieldhouse to full capacity.
ESU improved to 28-1 overall as they won all three of their games in the playoffs to become champions.
After a sure-handed 78-58 victory over the Millersville Marauders in the quarterfinals and putting away Mercyhurst in the semifinals after a hard fought win by the score of 63-55, the Warriors were poised to win another championship under 12 year Head Coach Jeff Wilson.
Sunday, the Warriors saw themselves facing a familiar foe in West Chester as they went 2-0 against the Rams in the regular season.
However, the postseason is a new season and everything that happened prior is history.
The Warriors came out and played solid basketball from tip-off until the closing seconds of the game in securing their second PSAC title.
The game started with both teams having title game jitters as they were playing too quickly for their comfort and it was a sloppy first few minutes of the game.
West Chester scored the first two buckets of the game to take an early 4-0 lead.
The Warriors, who couldn’t find a rhythm as they went 0-for-7 from the field, got their first bucket from sophomore guard Jamal Nwaniemeka as he drove to the lane with 15:30 left in the first half.
As the game progressed, the Warriors tried to get on one of their scoring runs that they are capable of producing.
They had a 7-0 run early in the first half to make it a 16-13 score in their favor but weren’t able to put a more substantial run together. Then, the lone senior for the Warriors in forward Zechariah Runkle showed why he is the heart and soul of this Warriors team.
As West Chester was inbounding the pass, Runkle read it all the way and stole the pass in mid-air, took two steps to the hoop, and jumped high in the air to finish the play with an authoritative one-handed slam. With the play, the Warriors were able to go on another run and increase their lead 23-15 at the 7:41 mark.
“I haven’t been able to do that for a very long time. It was fun and I tried to ignite things and get things going,” said Runkle who finished the night with four points, three rebounds, along with a steal and block.
The Warriors had a lead as large as twelve points before seeing the lead diminish to just three at 38-35 as the Golden Rams closed the gap at halftime.
All season long, ESU has been a second half team and they proved that once again as play resumed.
Although the Rams converted two quick baskets in their first two possessions, the Warriors began to gain momentum. At the 15:36 mark the Warriors went on a 14-8 run to give them a 52-43 lead.
In about seven and a half minutes, the Warriors pieced together another run. This time, an 18-12 run catapulted the Warriors to a 15-point lead as they led 70-55. As time was winding down, ESU was stuck in a tough position.
They were unsure of how to approach the game offensively in regards to attacking or eating time of the clock as there was still enough time for West Chester to mount a comeback and the Warriors saw their lead drop to just nine points with 2:37 left in the contest.
With just over a minute left, the Warriors had an 87-78 lead and eventually went on to win the game by the final score of 92-80.
The Warriors forced 26 turnovers and showed why they were the best in all of Division II in turnover differential (7.4+) as they had a +12 in the Championship game.
ESU also shot extremely well at the line as they shot over 88% for the game. The Warriors outscored the Golden Rams in the second half 54-45.
Nwaniemeka, a transfer from Division I Rider, was named the Tournament MVP. His 27 point performance led all scorers as the Philadelphia native shot 8-for-14 from the field and went 9-for-10 at the free throw line.
Nwaniemeka averaged 19.3 ppg in the three games the Warriors played and was a vital part of the Warriors victory against Millersville as he contributed 21 points.
“Jamal’s a great player with tremendous athletic ability and can shoot and attack the basket. I’m very happy he fit into this program and does such a great job,” said junior guard Whis Grant.
Grant had himself a nice day as he added 19 points along with Moore who also had 19 of his own and nine rebounds. Moore provided the down-low presence the Warriors needed as he was busy all game in the paint as he went 4-for-9 from the field and had 12 trips to the line where he made all but one.
For the Rams, it was senior guard Troy Hockaday leading the assault as he had 24 points for the visitors shooting 50% (9-for-18 FG) and added six free throws.
The Warriors will now have home court advantage in the NCAA Division II Tournament in the Atlantic Region as the NCAA Division II Selection show announced that East Stroudsburg University was selected as the number one seed in the Atlantic Region bracket.
It will be the fourth time in the last five years that the Warriors have been chosen as an at-large bid or earned and automatic bid to the tournament and is the first time in school history that ESU will host an NCAA men’s regional.
The Warriors are 16-0 at home and have an 18-game winning streak. With the selection, they will face the eighth ranked Livingstone College out of Salisbury, North Carolina.
Livingstone is 21-7 and coming off their first CIAA Championship with an 83-68 win over Winston-Salem University in turn, giving them an automatic bid to the tournament. They are also winners of three straight and are 9-1 in their last ten games.
ESU is tied for the best record in the tournament at 28-1 along with Metro State who was last year’s runner-up. Along with ESU, West Chester, Gannon, and IUP represent the PSAC in the Atlantic Region. IUP is the third seed, Gannon is fifth, and West Chester is sixth.
The opening round of the NCAA Division II Tournament will begin on Saturday, March 15 at Koehler Fieldhouse as all four quarterfinals will be played and then the semifinals will be played the following day and the regional final on Tuesday, March 18.
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