With 2 top-5 teams, IUP solidifying itself as a hoops haven
The IUP men are back in the rarefied air of Division II college basketball, off to a 13-0 start and holding the No. 3 spot in the polls.
Yet they’re not even the top-ranked team on their campus.
That honor belongs to the women, who are 11-0 and ascended to No. 1 for the first time in program history Tuesday. IUP is the only D-II school in the nation with both teams in the top five.
“We’re enjoying it because I think sometimes you really have to enjoy the journey and the good things that happen along the way,” sixth-year women’s coach Tom McConnell said. “It’s not just about the end of the year or the bottom line. We know it’s midseason, but for us to be recognized in this way is an honor.”
This territory is nothing new for Joe Lombardi’s men’s team, which is trying to reach the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in his 13 seasons. The Crimson Hawks lost in the championship game in 2010 and ’15. Senior point guard Dante Lombardi, Joe’s son, appreciates the uniqueness of this year.
“I think it’s great for the school in general,” he said, pointing out the football team, as well. “If you’re from Pennsylvania and you’re going to a state school, it’s hard to pass up on a school that’s had so much athletic success.”
The women and men share two crucial attributes: established coaches and highly impactful senior classes.
Carolyn Appleby (Greensburg Central Catholic), Lauren Wolosik (North Catholic) and Brittany Robinson are third-year starters who led the Crimson Hawks to the national semifinals last season and the PSAC Tournament championship in 2016-17.
“I think when we’re out there, we’re playing for one another,” said Appleby, a two-time all-conference selection and the MVP of the NCAA Atlantic Regional last season. “We know what we want to achieve, and we’re not going to let anything stand in our way.”
Appleby leads the team with 16.9 points per game to go with 3.7 assists, 1.9 steals and a lot of floor burns.
“We’ve been very spoiled,” McConnell said. “Everywhere I go, someone is asking me ‘Can we get Carolyn another year? Can we get her one more season?’ I feel the same way.
“People of IUP and Indiana just love her because of her toughness and how fierce she plays and competes. She’s on the floor more than she’s off it. She brings such a heart and toughness to our team with great skill.”
Robinson ranks second on the team with 10.9 points, and Wolosik is averaging 10. Junior forward Lexi Griggs (Vincentian) has nearly quadrupled her scoring output from last season, averaging 10.4 points along with 6.4 rebounds.
“She runs the floor so well,” McConnell said of Griggs. “She’s taken our running game to another level.”
IUP has won 10 of its 11 games by 20 or more points, and its 34.1 scoring margin leads the nation.
The men and women often play conference doubleheaders, so the men watch the first half of the women’s games before going into the locker room to get ready.
“It’s really nice being able to run out to our games seeing them win by 30 every night,” Dante Lombardi said with a laugh.
The men’s senior class includes Lombardi (15.6 points, team-high 5.6 assists), forward Jacobo Diaz (team-leading 19.8 points and 8.3 rebounds) and forward Willem Brandwijk (9.7 points, 6.5 rebounds).
Lombardi is a three-time All-PSAC West selection, and Diaz earned PSAC West Player of the Year as a sophomore and first-team All-PSAC West last season.
Junior Malik Miller (Farrell) averages 16.9 points, and redshirt freshman Armoni Foster (8.5 points) provides scoring punch off the bench.
“We have good balance,” said Joe Lombard, whose team has beaten three top-25 teams. “We’re a real veteran team with a lot of experience, so our guys have been through the program for a number of years. I think that can lend itself to consistency.”
The teams’ successes don’t happen in a vacuum, either. Lombardi and McConnell often speak daily, though a wipe board isn’t necessarily involved.
“A lot of what we share in conversation has more to do with life and maybe how to best pour into our teams and grow them more so than how to beat the press,” Lombardi said.
“They just have an elite program, and it starts with them having an elite coach, not only from a basketball standpoint, but (McConnell) and his staff are first-class individuals who work hard and are representatives the university should be proud of.”
McConnell said Lombardi is a valuable resource.
“Being around him has made me a better coach. He’s probably not aware of it, but just by me watching and observing all that he does has helped me tremendously. I really value our conversations. Each time we’re together, he’ll leave, and he just drops a little nugget, and I say ‘I’m going to put that in my back pocket and use that at some point.’ ”
And although expectations are a dangerous thing for either coach to set, neither of them is about to put a ceiling on their team.
“One of the things we always talk about, the theme of this group over the past couple of years is ‘No limits,’ ” McConnell said. “Taking the limits off what we can achieve and where we can go. They’re doing that.”
Jeff Vella is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at email@example.com or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.