The Pitt-Johnstown men’s basketball team lost its focus during a five-minute span in which Fairmont State utilized a gimmick defense against the Mountain Cats talented guard tandem of Nick Novak and Jordan Miller.
Fairmont State went on a 14-2 run and had UPJ reeling.
Just as its seemed the game had slipped away from coach Bob Rukavina’s team, the Cats responded with their own 17-4 run to take the lead late in a WVIAC contest at the Sports Center.
But there was no storybook finish for the home team on Tuesday night, as Fairmont State made a few clutch 3-pointers and was nearly flawless at the free throw line to seal a dramatic 85-81 Falcons win.
“They surprised us. They played a triangle-and-2 on Miller and Novak in the second half and we got a little bit flustered,” Rukavina said after UPJ fell to 3-2 overall, 1-2 in the conference. “We were forcing things. We didn’t really know what to do.”
Fairmont State’s 6-foot-9 senior forward Isaiah Hill had 26 points and nine rebounds. His presence inside got the Falcons going. But some long-range bombs by sophomore guard Chase Morgan down the stretch were just as pivotal. Morgan had 21 points, with three 3-pointers for the 3-2, 1-1 Falcons.
“It was a great basketball game with a lot of exciting plays,” Rukavina said. “We battled. They just made a couple more big plays than we did.”
Pitt-Johnstown had five players reach double-digit scoring, led by senior Novak’s 21 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Junior Andrew Cressler had 17 points and five rebounds in what Rukavina hopes is a momentum-building effort. The Plum graduate entered the game averaging 5.5 points and 5 rebounds.
“Cressler struggled early on in the season, and we know he can score,” Rukavina said. “He broke out tonight and we’re glad to see he got his confidence back.”
Sophomore 6-9 center Ian Vescovi had 15 points and five rebounds while battling Hill inside. Junior Bill Luther had 12 points, and Miller had 10 points and four assists.
First-year Fairmont State coach Jerrod Calhoun was an assistant to West Virginia coach Bob Huggins on a 19-14 NCAA Tournament team last season and spent five seasons in the Big East with the Mountaineers.
Calhoun is stressing defense, a point made evident when he went to the triangle-and-2.
“Honestly, we’ve never practiced that,” Calhoun said. “I don’t know what this league is, but it seems like there’s not much defense being played. I’ve worked with coach Huggins and we would hold teams under 70.
“Right now, I can’t get my guys to do it. I’m trying everything. I told my three assistants in there (at halftime), ‘We’re going to go triangle-and-2. I know we’ve never practiced it. We’ve never done it. But we’ve got to take those two guys out. We’ve got to limit their touches because they are very good players.’ Those are two of the better guards in the league, Novak for sure and the other guy, Miller, is so good playing off of him.”
UPJ withstood the barrage and went on its own 17-4 run capped by Luther’s 3-pointer to give the Cats a 67-66 lead with 8:33 left.
There were nine ties overall until the teams traded the lead five times in the final 4 minutes.
“It was two pretty good teams,” Calhoun said. “We’re still figuring out what we’re doing.
“I’ve got 11 new guys – seven freshmen and three or four transfers,” he added. “We’re a long ways from where we need to be but it was a good road win against a very well-coached team. I’ve scouted the Big East for five years, and coach (Rukavina) runs more stuff than any of those teams. If you don’t take them out of their sets, they run really good stuff. Their half-court offense is terrific.”