STATE COLLEGE — The Harrisburg Cougars just kept coming. They came in waves. Relentless. For stretches it was difficult to determine where their full-court pressure ended and where State College began.
Eventually, the short-handed Little Lions succumbed to the pressure on Senior Night 73-70, unable to avenge the three point loss they suffered to the Cougars in Harrisburg earlier this month.
“If you allow them to control tempo, control the game, if you’re going to allow them to create chaos with their defense you don’t have a chance,” said State College coach Drew Frank.
Kyle Kanaskie led all scorers with 30 points, while Bryan Sekunda added 21.
Jahaad Proctor scored 23 to lead the Cougars, while Steven Stoney poured in 17 and Ashtin Cooksey-Easter scored 12 important points.
State College played without senior Jason Costa and junior Michael Beattie, who were both out with injuries.
Spirits were high early after Connor Nodell drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Little Lions in the book first. Then, two free throws from Kyle Kanaskie made it 5-0 and State College seemed off and running.
But it didn’t last for long as the Cougars used their defensive pressure to assume control. They employed a run-and-jump press that pinned ball handlers to the sidelines while weak-side defenders picked off cross-court passes.
State College turned the ball over seven times in the eight-minute quarter (21 times in the game), thanks to the quick hands and feet of what must have seemed like more than five Cougars at a time.
“Well we knew they were going to bring pressure but it’s hard to prepare for it because there’s nobody like them,” Kanaskie said. “They’re so athletic and quick and they play so hard.”
Fueled by turnovers, the Cougars went on a 12-2 run to end the first frame, turning a 10-5 deficit with three minutes remaining into a 17-12 advantage when the horn sounded.
Even while Kanaskie scored an amazing 18 second-quarter points, the Cougars kept coming. The senior made four 3-pointers in the period (five in the game) and finished with 20 in the half, but the Cougars absorbed the effort with a sharpshooter of their own.
Proctor hit three triples in the second to keep pace, which was important because the Lions’ zone defense swarmed Shaquon Sheppard in the middle.
Sheppard’s big frame gouged State College down low for 23 points in the previous meeting. He finished with just four points and played sparingly in the second half because of foul trouble.
State College fought back and even captured a 34-33 lead that was almost larger after Kanaskie heaved a desperation three at the buzzer from three-quarter court that grazed the front rim.
But the Cougars forced State College to expend so much energy just to cope with the press that it seemed the team had little left to give in the second half.
Sekunda and Kanaskie not only had to score, but they had to rebound, play defense and wear defenders just to bring the ball up the floor.
“It’s all part of the game so you just have to work through it,” Sekunda said, cheeks red, while a river of red blood dug out by a fingernail streamed down his right arm.
“But it does take a little bit out of you,” he continued with a smile.
The Cougars kept at it in the third with a 12-5 run that seemed to stagger the weary Lions.
“I kept saying I have to get them out, I have to get them out,” said Frank of his tired starters. “In particular Bryan because they did such a good job of hounding him.”
State College found a way to battle back, scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter, but Harrisburg remained in control. Cooksey-Easter made six big free throws down the stretch to seal the game.
The Cougars weren’t just the more athletic team, they also played a brilliant brand of team basketball and cerebrally penetrated the paint to free up open open teammates.
“Coach Smallwood always has a very deep team,” Frank said. “But I don’t think he gets enough credit. People think they come out and they just run around. He does a terrific job of getting his players organized and he plays to their strengths.”
State College will have to bounce back quickly as they’ll have revenge on their minds again when they host Altoona today at 7:30 in a game with serious playoff implications.
Altoona surprised State College 71-63 earlier this month.
“They don’t have a choice,” Frank said with a smile talking about his team needing to rebound quickly. “That’s easy for me -- the older guy -- to tell them that. But we have no choice tomorrow night. We need to go home and refocus and bring that same level of energy.”