By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
GROVE CITY — The 2012-13 season has been both difficult and different for the Thiel College men’s basketball team.
During the past 2 seasons Thiel contested Bethany College for the Presidents’ Athletic Conference crown, only to fall short.
The Tomcats commenced the current campaign with 7 consecutive conquests. However a 6-game losing skid ensued, which coincided with the revelation that former student-athlete Aundra Jones unexpectedly died.
But it would appear the Tomcats have put that rough patch in the rear-view mirror. Thiel tallied its 2nd straight triumph Saturday afternoon, 65-48 at Grove City.
In the opener of the matinee twin bill at GCC Arena, the host Lady Wolverines won 53-43 over their Tomcat counterparts.
The uneven season thus far is not a coincidence, 7th-year Thiel taskmaster Tim Loomis allowed.
“I think we’re starting to get back. I think the death of Aundra Jones and all the injuries, it was kind’ve overwhelming. But it was no excuse, absolutely no excuse,” Loomis emphasized.
“But kids are kids,” he added, “everybody’s human, myself included, and (Jones’ death) took a lot out of us. His mother and I communicated the whole time,” Loomis related. “We went to Bethany for a big league game (Dec. 8), and we weren’t very good there, and we weren’t very good on (Dec. 10) at Allegheny.
“The ones who played with him and us coaches who had been with him ... he was a great player, but an even better person. Wonderful kid. Made you happy to be around him,” Loomis continued.
“It took a lot out of us, but we’re dedicating the season to him. And I think that now we understand what life’s all about, we understand these things sometimes happen.”
Grove City was leading the PAC in defensing field goals, including treys, but the Tomcats dictated tempo by establishing their athleticism. Thiel (5-3 PAC, 8-6 overall) tallied only 36.8 percent of its floor shots (21 of 57) and 31.6 percent of its 3-point fielders. But Thiel transitioned successfully out of its defense, coercing 19 Grove City turnovers and 29.3 percent Wolverines’ shooting.
“In the first half they got most of their points off of fast-break shots where we either fouled them or they got layups,” 15th-year Grove City head coach Steve Lamie assessed, “and the second half, same thing. We were trying to, maybe — and this is to Thiel’s credit — we were trying to be patient and get something more out of the framework of our offense.
“But their defense was so iron-clad that first half, we were trying to get, maybe, the first shot we could ... just because ... maybe we weren’t getting anything,” Lamie continued. “Had we made those, maybe it’s a different game, but it didn’t work out that way. That’s the best defense that we’ve played against all year.
“We almost played not to lose, not to make a mistake, rather than attacking, and you have to,” Lamie said. “Hopefully, you can counter (Thiel’s athleticism) with being more aggressive, being more confident. But they took us out of anything we tried to do offensively.”
Thiel took a 34-23 margin at intermission and maintained a double-digit lead throughout the 2nd half, leading by as many at 18 on a trio of occasions.
Former Kennedy Catholic High standout Chace McKinney maneuvered for a game-high 16 points, including 6-for-6 free-throw markmanship and also tossed in 2 second-half treys. Also, the PAC’s early-season leading rebounder Ladell Trotty tallied a dozen points and hauled down a half-dozen caroms, and New Castle native Anthony Harvey had a team-high 7 caroms and scored 8 points. Loomis utilized 15 players in a revolving-door rotation.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to build the last two, three years — building bench strength, kids that can just go in there and play defense, not turn it over, maybe get some transition buckets,” Loomis said. “We’re building everything on defense again.”
Grove City (2-5, 4-10) was led by Mitch Marmelstein’s 13 markers and J.T. Schwartz, who scored 12 before incurring an ankle sprain with approximately 5 minutes remaining.
The Grovers welcome Penn State-Altoona Monday night in a non-conference contest.
“It’s a quck turnaround, and sometimes that’s better when you don’t have to dwell on things,” Lamie continued. “You just take an amnesia pill and you move on to the next game, and I think that’s what we have to do.”
ä Grove City’s girls came into their contest leading the loop in rebounding margin (plus-6), field-goal defense (33 percent) and scoring defense (52.6). Though Thiel’s Kelly Muffley (17.4) and Kelly Barzak (16.9) were the leading and 3rd-best scorers in the PAC prior to Saturday’s tipoff, the Lady Wolverines wore them down.
Career 1,000-point scorer Muffley mustered only 9 markers on 3-for-12 shooting, owing, in part, to situational substitute Cayley McClean’s Doberman-like defense. And though Barzak bucketed a team-high 13, she needed 14 shots and emerged as the Lady Cats’ lone double-digit scorer.
Thiel trailed 22-17 at halftime.
“One thing we really focus on and emphasize is defense,” 3rd-year GCC head coach Michelle Bruns said. “It’s something we know we can control every day at practice and every game.
“We’ve got some good defenders and some good ability from individuals, but we really focus on the team, and it came together. We were able to shut down their two main scorers, which was our goal,” Bruns added, citing assistant coach Chelle Fuss for the defensive rotations.
“That’s a point of emphassis And we have some really strong rebounders. They pursue the ball and just really attack the boards well. So, offensively it gives us confidence shooting the basketball, because we know we’ll rebound close to half our shoots,” Bruns added.
Grove City (5-3, 6-6) grabbed a 49-37 rebounding edge and coerced the Lady Cats (1-7, 2-12) of 1st-year head coach Rob Clune into 31.4 percent shooting (16 for 41; also, 2 for 9 from beyond the arc.) Thiel turned over the ball 20 times.
One of a half-dozen yearlings 5-foot-10 or taller, Mary McDonald mustered a game-high 18 points and added 14 caroms to complete a double-double, while senior guard Leah Gibson garnered 16 points while committing only 1 miscue in 35 minutes.
Gibson, who has started 80 of a possible 81 games during her 4-year collegiate career, moved into 9th place in all-time GCC scoring annals (1,088).