The State College boys’ basketball team set a lofty goal earlier this week — winning the state championship — and already showed its potential during the first weekend of the season.
The Little Lions ran away from St. James (Md.) 58-41 Saturday in the championship game of the Skip Coleman Memorial Tip-Off Tournament. They dominated in the second half against a team led by 6-foot-9 Pitt signee Bryce Golden, controlling the glass, playing solid defense and executing offensively on their way to an impressive victory.
“This is one of, I think, our most complete games that State College, for me, has played in the last four years,” State College coach Joe Walker said. “They’re a very talented team and a double-digit win over that team is very impressive because they’re that good.”
Drew Friberg and Keaton Ellis each finished with 14 points to lead the Little Lions, who used a 15-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters to pull away. Friberg knocked down a team-high three 3-pointers and stayed active on the defensive end, while Ellis routinely penetrated and finished at the rim. They’re part of an experienced core for a State College team that went 21-5 and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs last season. The Little Lions are aiming for more this year, and they’ve discussed their team goals for the season.
“We have it written down: Go all the way,” Friberg said.
State College didn’t talk about their goals that much last year, but this year, they want to keep it in mind during drills at practice and film sessions. And, on Saturday, they left the gym with confidence after realizing how good they can be in the win over St. James.
They held Golden — a four-star prospect, according to ESPN — to seven points and limited St. James’ second-chance opportunities. They outplayed a team that included 6-foot-10 center Dima Zdor and 6-foot-5 guard Amir Harris. With his length and athleticism, Harris kept Friberg in check in the first half.
Walker said it was the first time he’s seen his senior — a four-year standout headed to Princeton — look nervous because he wanted to win so bad. He was short on a few shots and had to work hard to get an open look.
In the second half, Ellis took some pressure off of Friberg, driving into the lane and making plays in transition. The Little Lions discussed penetrating more to create opportunities during halftime, and Ellis played a large role in making that adjustment. The guard got to the basket on drives and made plays in transition to help the Little Lions pull away.
“I don’t think they respected me because they didn’t really help when I drove, so I just tried to get to the rack and finish,” Ellis said.
Said Walker: “I feel bad for anyone that tries to guard him because one-on-one, he really is — he’s that fast.”
While Ellis thrived with the ball in his hands, Friberg found his stroke and started the game-turning 15-0 run with a 3-pointer late in the third quarter. Friberg clapped on the defensive end and urged the fans to get louder in the second half. He maintained that intensity on both ends of the floor as the Little Lions turned a one-point lead into a 48-32 advantage with 4:33 left in the fourth.
At times in the past, Walker said Friberg might show that type of emotion once in a game.
“He was leading through emotion tonight, which I’ve asked him to do,” Walker said. “Because it’s his last year, it’s really important to him.”
It’s not Friberg’s natural personality, Walker said, but he’s the leader of this Little Lions team with high expectations. And he stepped up to fill that role in an intense game early — one that’s only given the Little Lions more confidence.
“We can play with some of these really good teams,” Friberg added. “We’re just going to hopefully keep building on the momentum.”