State College coach Joe Walker reminded his team at its morning shootaround about Bethlehem Freedom’s press.
Walker knew the Patriots used their athleticism to generate points off turnovers.
If the Little Lions didn’t give Freedom any easy buckets, Walker said he knew they’d have a good chance to win the game.
State College did more than just protect the ball against the 2-2-1 press Monday night.
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“We did so well and we scored so many times out of it, they actually had to get out of it because we were disciplined,” Walker said. “So I was really proud of the way we handled their pressure.”
The Little Lions capitalized on Freedom’s pressure to build an 11-point lead after the first quarter and earned a 65-52 win in its opening game of the Kiwanis Holiday Classic. Alex McCann paced State College (4-4) with 16 points, and Drew Friberg and Tyler Snyder each added 10. The Little Lions went 25 for 35 from the free-throw line, including 11 of 12 in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
Najee Cash led Freedom (4-4) with 12 points.
State College will take on Loyalsock in the championship Tuesday at 4 p.m. Loyalsock beat Upper Darby 64-60 on Monday.
The Little Lions have already matched their win total from last season when they finished 4-21.
Ten different players scored for State College in the win, highlighting the difference for the team this year.
“We’re just playing a lot better as a team,” McCann said. “It doesn’t revolve around one player.”
Walker played 10 players for extended periods Monday and said there’s little dropoff when he goes to his bench.
“They’re all different players and they have a little bit of different skillsets, but they’re starting to learn their roles,” Walker said. “And even bringing out five guys to spell rather than calling a timeout, that is a great luxury to have.
“And they’re starting to mesh as a team and realize my minutes don’t matter.”
The Little Lions took a 23-12 lead after the first quarter and never looked back.
State College seized control by taking apart Freedom’s press.
“We were worried about their press and we handled it really well and kicked them out of it right away,” McCann said.
The Little Lions broke the press time and again by passing the ball downcourt, leading to open layups and opportunities before Freedom’s halfcourt defense could get set.
McCann finished a left-handed layup to get the Little Lions on the board. He then found a cutting Snyder for a layup, and Snyder hit an open jumper to give State College a 6-2 lead.
Snyder later came up with a steal and finished in transition to push the Little Lions ahead 10-4.
McCann got an open layup after Freedom’s Kharory Smith gambled to push the advantage to nine points.
“My team was making it easy for me,” McCann said. “I don’t do any work on the press, they just pass me the ball.”
The Little Lions and Patriots started cold in the second quarter as State College extended its lead to 31-18 at the half.
State College led by 17 less than a minute into the third quarter.
Freedom cut it to nine, but the Patriots never got any closer.
“Those kids, they had a rough season last year, it was a big aberration for them,” Walker said. “To struggle through that, but then to want to come back work and work as hard as they have is really admirable and I’m really proud of that. But they’re learning to win. Some of the stuff we talked about, taking certain shots, you got to learn to win, you got to mature in that process.”
State College put the game away at the line.
The Little Lions hit 19 of 24 free throws in the second half and 11 of 12 in the final period.
Snyder was 4 for 4 from the line in the fourth quarter, Tyler Smith went 4 for 4 for the night and Friberg finished 8 for 12.
“We were streaky,” Walker said. “The first couple of games, we were right at 75 percent. We kind of had a dip in the last couple of games, but when they get tired they need to take that deep breath. ... When that becomes your offense, you better be good at it.”