As his team took the floor for the first time this season, Little Lions coach Joe Walker wasn’t sure what was in store.
His returning leading scorer from last year wasn’t on the hardwood, but instead, the gridiron. The player who ended up being the Little Lions’ point-leader was living in Texas last year. And a freshman, in his first game, provided a much-needed, surprising jolt to the State College offense, only to hurt his hand and exit the game.
The Little Lions were, without a doubt, at less than full-strength on Friday night, as they fell to La Salle College 56-44 at home in the Skip Coleman Tip-Off Invitational.
“We didn’t really know what to expect,” Walker said.
With the loss, State College will play in a consolation game against Norristown at 2 p.m. Saturday, while La Salle College will face North Allegheny at 3:30.
Drew Friberg, who averaged a team-high 12.2 points per game last year, and Brandon Clark missed the season opener because they were playing in the state playoffs against Central Catholic.
Without two key contributors, Walker had to look elsewhere for production. His eyes, along with the crowd’s, quickly zeroed in on 5-foot-8 freshman guard Keaton Ellis.
The Explorers jumped out to an early lead, and the Little Lions needed something.
After missing his first attempt, Ellis nailed two 3-pointers in a span of a minute.
Chants of “he’s a freshman!” hailed down from the Little Lions’ student section.
Ellis brought a spark.
State College was down only four points after the first quarter thanks in part to Ellis totaling half its points. But after converting a third basket and patrolling the Little Lions’ offense, Ellis left the game with a hand injury.
That hurt State College’s continuity on offense.
“You practice with a group of guys, and then that happens,” Walker said. “You’re not used to it. The chemistry isn’t there.”
Meanwhile, La Salle College’s combination of slashing guard Jarrod Stukes and 6-foot-5 forward Ryan McTamney guided the Explorers to a nine-point halftime lead.
Stukes, who finished with 16 points, challenged the Little Lions at the rim, cutting into the paint and maneuvering well around taller trees in congested space. All six of his field goals were layups.
“He’s quick, and he’s strong,” Explorers coach Joe Dempsey said of Stukes. “We’re fortunate to have him.”
La Salle College was also happy to have McTamney, who scored a game-high 22 points. The senior worked the paint well early and, as he found his shot, connected on a trio of 3-pointers.
McTamney was especially effective in the second half, going 5 of 7 from the field with 14 points.
State College did have an answer in the fourth quarter. His name was Andrew Witt.
Witt, a 6-foot-4 junior who moved from Texas to State College before the school year, eased his way into his first game as a Little Lion, but turned it on in the final period. Witt scored nine of State College’s 14 fourth-quarter points, and finished with 13.
“He’s kind of feeling out his role,” Walker said of Witt. “I was impressed with how aggressive he got.”
Even with Witt’s notable first impression, State College couldn’t overcome the Explorers’ second-half scoring and, especially, Friberg’s absence.
After State College football lost Friday night, it’s unclear if Friberg will make his season debut against Norristown.
Whenever it is, Walker is looking forward to his return.
“We were kind of short-handed,” Walker said. “We’ll be glad to have him back.”