After trailing by as many as 13 points in the first quarter, State College coach Joe Walker said the hope of getting a shot to tie the game before the buzzer sounded like a good deal.
The Little Lions put on a furious late rally in their new coach’s debut and got that chance, but Tyler Hall’s 25-foot, 3-pointer at the buzzer just missed as State College fell 70-67 in the opening round of the annual Skip Coleman Memorial Tip-off Tournament.
The Little Lions will face Haverford in the consolation finals Saturday at 2 p.m., at the South Gym. Norristown takes on North Allegheny, a 64-47 winner against Haverford, in the championship game at 3:30 p.m.
State College, which went 2-20 in the regular season last winter, got off to a rough start. The Little Lions went the first seven minutes without a field goal and fell behind 17-4 when Desmond Gorski nailed a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left in the first quarter. Norristown led 17-6 at the end of the quarter.
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“We had a lot of nerves at the beginning,” said Walker, in his first game since replacing longtime Little Lion coach Drew Frank. “They were really excited for the beginning of the season. Me, too.”
The Eagles forced eight first-quarter turnovers and emptied their bench to keep up the frenetic pace.
“In the first half, we used 12 guys,” Norristown coach Mike Evans said. “Anytime we can keep the pace, that’s what we have to do. To cause havoc on defense, we’ve got to play a lot of guys.”
After the first quarter, the Little Lions slowly began to get their footing. State College outscored Norristown in each of the final three quarters.
Walker said his team’s confidence grew as the game wore on.
“Once you understand that we are good enough to play with these guys, it builds,” he said. “The shots they were taking got better. Instead of pulling back, they were being more aggressive and going more to the hoop.”
The Eagles led 34-24 at the half and led by as many as 12 early in the third quarter before the Little Lions made a run. Tyler Snyder had six points as State College closed to within 45-42 with 2 1/2 minutes left in the period. Darryl Carr had five late points as the Eagles pushed the margin back to 52-45.
State College got to within six points a couple of times early in the fourth quarter, but after Carr drained two free throws with 1:19 remaining Norristown appeared to have a comfortable 67-57 lead.
Alex McCann’s layup and a 3-pointer from Cooper Gulley cut the margin in half. After a free throw from Carr, Drew Friberg drilled a 3-pointer from the left corner to cut the margin to three points.
The Little Lions then forced a turnover with 18.2 seconds left. Hall was fouled on a drive to the basket with 11.4 left and swished two free throws to cut the margin to 68-67, the closest State College had been since the opening tap.
Carr calmly nailed two free throws with 7.4 seconds remaining to push the lead back to three.
State College worked the ball up the floor, but its first two options were thwarted. Hall got the ball dribbled away from one defender and ducked under another to fire a three-pointer, but it just missed to the left.
“We got a decent shot,” Walker said. “Under seven seconds left if you can get a shot off, you did a pretty good job. He got a pretty clean look, but it was just a hair away.”
Evans was happy with his club’s defense on the play.
“We got caught up in that, ‘Do you foul or do you let them play it out,’” Evans said. “We let them play it out and the guys played great defense.”
McCann led the Little Lions with 17 points. Friberg and Gulley had 12 and 11, respectively. Michael Caswell notched nine, while Hall and Snyder had eight each.
“It takes time to understand your role,” Walker said of his club. “As coaches, we’re just figuring out rotations. ... The one thing they understand is that if you hustle, rebound and play defense, everyone can fill that role, no matter where they’re at.”
Carr had 22 points to lead all scorers. Roy Green, the only returning starter and senior for the Eagles, netted 14.
“With this young group, every game is going to be like that,” Evans said. “They found a way to pull through and that’s a positive sign for them.”