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NCAA-bound Penn State Behrend forged by Central America trip

| Thursday, March 6, 2014, 11:02 p.m.
Penn State Behrend athletics
Penn State Behrend junior guard Nick DeLisio was named first-team All-Allegheny Mountain Athletic Conference.

A week without cell-phone use.

It sounds like cruel punishment for any college student.

But for the Penn State Behrend men's basketball players, it laid the groundwork for a second straight NCAA Division III Tournament berth.

In August, the Lions traveled to Costa Rica to play three exhibition games and to explore the Central American country. The trip helped develop on-court chemistry for a team that had lost three starters, but the off-court activities perhaps were equally important. They went zip lining, whitewater rafting and snorkeling — all as a group, and all without the usual interruptions of cellphones since nobody could get a signal.

“The distractions weren't there,” said 20th-year coach Dave Niland, whose Lions (23-4) visit Hope (20-7) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a first-round game in Holland, Mich. “We could really focus on our group for seven days. As a coach, you enjoy that. The kids saw a different side of how to communicate. If you want to be a great team, that's what you got to do.”

And it wasn't just Niland who felt that way. Senior shooting guard Casey Courneen, a Quaker Valley graduate, said he didn't mind giving up texting for a few days.

“It was cool to sit down and talk without everybody looking at their cellphones or trying to get on the computer,” he said. “It was nice to get away from all of that and really bond and connect as a team.”

On the court, things went well until the final exhibition game. Penn State Behrend played a poor first half, and the players started bickering as they went into halftime. Courneen and junior point guard Nick DeLisio said that was a turning point, as the players quickly realized they couldn't self-destruct. Unselfishness has been one of the team's staples since.

The same five players have started every game for the Lions, and they've dominated much of the season, winning their games by an average margin of 15.3 points. DeLisio, a Central Valley graduate, leads the team with 13 points and 3.7 assists per game. He received first-team All-Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference honors.

“He's a really clutch player, one of the most clutch kids I've coached in the 20 years I've been here,” Niland said. “He's hit a ton of big shots.”

Three other players average double digits, including Courneen at 10.2 points per game.

Defensively, Penn State Behrend ranks fifth in D-III in allowing 58.3 points per game. Junior guard Keith Wallace was named AMCC co-Defensive Player of the Year.

A stiff test awaits the Lions on Friday. Hope leads D-III in home attendance with 2,491 fans per game. Penn State Behrend's largest road crowd this season was 376. The Lions, though, said they believe last season's NCAA Tournament game will help. Penn State Behrend traveled to Wooster (Ohio), which ranks second in D-III with an average attendance of 1,717 this season, and lost 62-44.

“It was an awesome environment (last season), but it was kind of intimidating because we weren't used to it at all,” DeLisio said. “It's so different. You've got TV timeouts. You've got cameras all around.

“I was too excited, trying to do too much too early. I think I'll be more relaxed this year.”

Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jvella@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.

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