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PSNK looks for strong 2nd half showing

| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Pitt Johnstown's AJ Leahey, left, and Penn State New Kensington's Shaquille Hager, muscle for position near the hoop in action Thursday, November 14, 2013 at PSNK Athletic Center.

A precarious first half of the season could give way to a more consistent second half for the Penn State New Kensington men's basketball team, which returns to action Thursday after a 32-day holiday and semester break.

Amid a grueling schedule dotted with Division II and III teams, the local Lions went 3-7 (2-3 Penn State University Athletic Conference) and ended the first half on a two-game winning streak. They hope to carry that momentum forward.

“The back-to-back wins definitely helped, but more importantly we are relevant again,” said first-year coach Art McCray. “We are now in a position where PSNK hasn't been in some time. We will be playing for a chance to be in second place in our division when we play (at) Penn State Fayette (Thursday). Last year at this time PSNK was in the last spot out of 14 teams. We are now currently eighth and for me, that's significant.”

The PSUAC is divided into three divisions and the top two from each qualify for the conference playoffs. Similar to the NFL, two additional playoff spots go to the teams with the best remaining records.

PSNK would be eighth if the season ended today. But 11 games remain to sustain or improve that position.

As is customary in small-college, branch-campus basketball, the roster will change for the second semester. The Lions lose shooting guard and 3-point specialist Dom Strapac (Leechburg), who is graduating. But the team could be bolstered by freshman Gian-Karlo Molina, a 6-foot-5 swingman who played a Upper St. Clair but had his career paused because of a knee injury. Coaches believe the Puerto Rico-born Molina still has game.

Another addition who will add size is 6-4 guard/forward Jamie Grayson, a freshman from McKeesport. He transferred from Akron, but did not play basketball there.

“This addition will allow us to play a bigger lineup and not force us to put a smaller guard on the floor when we would prefer a big,” McCray said of the newcomers. “In addition, we should come out on top in the rebounding category.”

Turnovers have been down for the most part, but PSNK is allowing 93 points per game while scoring just 69.3. The Lions are shooting just 24.8 percent from 3-point range.

McCray said the Lions were “playing through the motions” during the first half of games and need to improve on defending the 3-point line and restoring confidence.

“Handling adversity and not giving up when we played (larger schools) has really shown who wants to be with our program,” McCray said. “The guys have really grown during those tough games and it has made their bond with each other stronger.”

A sound example came against Penn State Greater Allegheny when the Lions trailed by 20 at halftime, only to rally for a 68-67 win.

“The guys could have easily given up but they didn't,” McCray said. “They committed to the game plan and executed.”

That improved execution will be on display more often in Upper Burrell because PSNK won't do as much traveling in the final month of the season.

While seven of the 10 games were away in the first half, seven will be at home the rest of the way.

The Lions' top scorer in the first half was senior guard Daryl Harrington, who is averaging 11.3 points. Junior forward Shaquille Hager is averaging 11 points and 6.5 rebounds, and freshman forward Matt Sutton is scoring 9.3 points per game.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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