While his team was predicted to finish fourth in the Mid Penn Commonwealth Division prior to the season, coach Joe Walker always believed his players could exceed those expectations.
With the talent he had at his disposal, Walker felt this State College team had the potential to finish in the top spot against favored opponents such as Carlisle and Harrisburg.
As the horn sounded on Wednesday night’s 59-50 win against the Thundering Herd, the Little Lions achieved what Walker always thought they could, a Mid Penn title.
While he wants to check the standings before he celebrates, Walker praised his team for achieving what he always believed it could.
“The great feeling is that they reached that potential,” he said. “These guys have really worked hard making that their goal at the beginning of the season.”
The Little Lions win gave them an 11-2 record in Mid Penn play, and Harrisburg is 10-3 in the conference going into its final game. State College clinched a share of the title Wednesday night and can win it outright with a victory over Central Dauphin on Friday.
Even having the opportunity to be called Mid Penn champions makes Walker proud, especially in a division that he feels is one of the best in the state.
“To have the chance to be called Commonwealth champions with the history of Harrisburg, State College and Carlisle, it is a really big deal and we’re proud of it,” he said.
Securing the division title was a challenge, as the Herd kept pace with the Little Lions through much of the first three quarters before State College pulled away in the final frame. A pair of clutch buzzer beaters — at the end of the first half and then at the end of the third quarter — gave the Little Lions the confidence to hold on for the win.
Gavyn Barnes and Ethan Houston nailed back-to-back three pointers for the Herd early in the fourth quarter to pull even with State College at 46. Walker debated calling a timeout, but let his players play through the adversity.
Moments later, Tommy Sekunda hit a three of his own that Walker felt put his team over the hump.
“That gave us a little bit of a cushion where we could move the ball,” he said. “It’s amazing playing with a three-point lead versus being tied. There’s not as much pressure, or you don’t feel the pressure as much.”
While Walker thought Sekunda had trouble shooting throughout the game, he ended up pacing the Little Lions with 15 points.
Facing the three-point deficit, Carlisle began pressing, forcing shots and aggressively chasing rebounds. The latter allowed State College plenty of opportunities at the free-throw line, where they finished the game near perfect (25-of-26).
Walker believes that hitting free throws, especially late in a game, can eat away at the opponent.
“If you’re consistently making your free throws, they never really get that confidence,” he said. “You just keep putting nail after nail as the clock’s winding down.”