State College had the play it wanted drawn up.
Down by three with 20 seconds to go, Little Lions point guard Keaton Ellis pushed the ball down the floor, found Andrew Witt open on the perimeter off a ball screen, and Witt, following through with a smooth left-handed stroke, nearly tied the game.
The ball just clanked off the back rim.
The State College boys’ basketball team (3-8) dropped a close one to Altoona (6-6) on Saturday night, falling 56-52.
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Despite the down-to-the-wire nature of the game, State College coach Joe Walker was unhappy in his team’s fifth loss in the last six games.
“They wanted it more than us. ... They beat us in every aspect of the game,” Walker said of the Mountain Lions. “We were complacent. We weren’t aggressive.”
That much was clear in the early goings. Altoona had a five-point lead at halftime, and built it up to 11 at one point in third quarter, outpacing State College on the break and bruising the Little Lions inside.
Senior 6-foot-3 forward Jacob Port worked the block, scoring 12 points in the first half alone and finishing with 16, while Altoona’s guards were money from long distance. Daiquain Watson, Jimmy Luciano and Max Crownover combined for five 3-pointers.
One of Luciano’s deep balls helped fuel a 9-2 run to start the third period, forcing State College to call a timeout and bringing a smile to the face of Altoona coach Paul Hasson.
“We had a comfortable lead,” Hasson said, “but it’s never comfortable in the Altoona-State College game.
“We knew they’d make a run.”
Which the Little Lions did.
Following the timeout, State College utility man Drew Friberg nailed a key 3-pointer, springing the Little Lions’ offense. Friberg, who ended with a game-high 18 points, and State College finished out the period on a 17-6 advantage.
Walker was pleased to finally see a spark of energy from his side.
“Our backs were against the wall,” Walker said. “I wish it wouldn’t have taken that long, but it was urgency at that point. They had to start playing.”
After a bit of back-and-forth in the fourth quarter, State College took a lead on a 3-pointer by Witt with 6:20 to go in regulation. It was one of three 3’s Witt hit on the night. He finished with 10 points.
Later, with a three-point lead and three minutes remaining on the clock, State College was content passing the ball around on offense, milking the clock down. But the Little Lions’ ball movement around the key got a bit predictable, and Altoona’s Shawn Gibson jumped.
Gibson cut in front of a pass, and took it down the court for an easy layup, cutting State College’s lead to 52-51. The Little Lions couldn’t do anything with their next possession, and the Mountain Lions caught them off guard in transition. State College couldn’t get set defensively in time, and Luciano had an open mid-range look that he buried with 58 seconds to go.
Altoona led, 53-52.
After a pair of Altoona free throws, State College had its chance, down three, but Witt couldn’t convert on that 3-point look.
Both Walker and Witt were content with the open look. It just didn’t fall.
“It worked out,” Witt said of the ball screen. “Just happened to miss it.”
Hasson couldn’t have been more satisfied with the win. The Mountain Lions have dropped several close games this season, and he was glad his players pulled one out.
For State College, Walker hopes the Little Lions sustain high-energy play throughout the course of the game the next time they’re on the court, at Carlisle on Tuesday.
Note: After incurring a broken thumb in the season opener, Ellis made his return to the court. He managed the Little Lions’ offense for most of the evening and chipped in a 3-pointer. “He’s so smooth, the way he moves on the court, offensively and defensively,” Walker said. “The kid doesn’t shy away from any moment. ... It’s a really good weapon to have.”