THE 2019-20 season just started for the Penn State Shenango men’s basketball team, but this much is evident: the Lions are extremely athletic, perhaps even more so than a year ago.

Even in Saturday’s 84-71 setback to Franciscan University, Shenango coerced the Barons into 22 turnovers while making only 13 miscues of their own. But the Lions were on the short end of the scoreboard for much of the 40-minute match, meaning they were trapping virtually throughout in an effort to rally. While Shenango shot relatively well (25 for 55, 45.4 percent), the Lions were bullied on the boards by the Barons (45-27).

“We talked after the game and we said, ‘The ball’s not always gonna go in, but we’ve gotta be able to get (defensive) stops.’” related interim Coach Geoff Evans, who acknowledged, “Yeah, I think we are an athletic team; we’ve just gotta be able to use our athletes a little bit better, and that comes from experience with these guys. A lot of these guys haven’t played for a little while, and they’re learning the college game. A guy like Davonte (Carter) –– he’s a guy who’s really athletic, but he’s just learning how to play in more of a half-court set. So once he starts pickin’ things up, and a couple of our other guys, we’ll be good.”

Evans continued: “We tried to press a little bit and use our 1-2-2 trap and extend our arms, and there were times we had balls go right through our hands –– a tip here, a tip there. It was a two-to-eight-point game throughout the entire game, but it got away at the end. But, yeah, our athletic ability, if we can just use that energy and athleticism, we’ll be all right.”

Relating to athleticism, guard Tyrone Steals slashed to the basketball almost at will. He scored a team-high 15 points (11 during the 2nd half), though he converted just 2 of 6 free-throw attempts. The Lions, collectively, connected on only 20 of 31 freebies (64.5).

“I think Ty Steals can really score the basketball for us, he showed that (Saturday),” Evans praised, “ ... I thought, at times (former Sharon High standout) Ramell Askerneese was able to handle the pressure from the point. But other than that, on an individual basis, I really didn’t think that some guys that typically shoot the ball well in practice ... we just didn’t have a good shooting night.”

Steals shot 6 for 13 and Anthony Bailey converted 5 of 8 attempts off the low block. Conversely, Franciscan fired in 13 treys and the Barons bucketed 30 of 62 floor shots (48.3).

Last season Shenango’s 2nd-half surge helped the Lions land a postseason tournament berth and 15-11 overall record. And just like last year the non-conference schedule if front-loaded for a purpose. 

“We’re just preparing for (PSU Athletic Conference) play, and this was actually our first time on the floor against an opponent. Obviously, the ending wasn’t great, but there was a lot to learn from,” Evans said, later admitting, “One thing that didn’t sit well with me was just our body language at times. When things were going well, we were great; when things were going bad, we kind’ve went in the dumps a little bit, and that’s something that we’ve gotta change. I thought, from the practices comin’ in(to the season opener), I didn’t think that’d be an issue. But we’ll handle that internally and we’ll make sure guys are really supporting each other. 

“And they are. It’s just one of those things where it’s the first game, and a lot of new things happenin’. So, obviously we wanted to win the game, but as long as we learn from it, we’ll be okay,” Evans concluded.

• During a post-game conversation with Franciscan Head Coach Joe Wallace, he related, “We’re in the (Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference) for one more year, then we’re joining the PAC (Presidents’ Athletic Conference) for next year. We’re excited about that; it’s a big move for our program.

“It’s a great move for our (basketball) program, but not only men’s basketball, but for the school,” Wallace related, “We’re cutting down on travel time, we’re playing schools that are like us –– faith-based private schools, instead of the (AMCC) where you have a lot of public universities. It’s just a better fit for us in the long term.”

Wallace is commencing his 4th season as Franciscan’s cage coach. Though Saturday’s game against Shenango was, more or less, a dress rehersal (NCAA Division III teams cannot begin their 2019-20 season until Friday), Wallace assessed, 

“The first time this year we’ve played ‘live,’ goin’ against somebody else, I thought our defensive energy was really good; we had really good ball pressure. Communication was lacking in transition defense, but I thought we really did a good job of sharing the basketball (led by Joe Schriner and Justin Mack, who evenly divided 10 assists), we got the open shot and played really good team basketball, yes.

“We did a good job on the boards (Frankovitch 10, Schriner 8), and we didn’t have our best post player (Matt Trent). He should be full-go, and we have a game Friday (7 p.m., welcoming Washington & Jefferson to Finnegan Fieldhouse), and we were without our starting point guard (John Noce) –– two senior guys were out. But other than that we did a great job of playing team basketball, we were on the glass, we did little things –– we were physical.”

Trent (13.1 points, 9.4 rebounds/game en route to 3rd-Team All-AMCC last year) and Noce (7.3 ppg., 3.4 assists, 77.4 percent free-throw shooter), Franciscan finished 13-14 overall, 9-9 in the AMCC last year, and Wallace said, “We should be in the top four or five (preseason poll rankings), for sure. We had our first winning regular season last year –– first since 1972-73, and we return a lot of guys. We won thirteen games and went to the conference tournament for the first time in program history. A lot of ‘firsts’ last year, and lookin’ to build on that.

“We’ve come a long way, and now we have an established program, now we have some good, young players. We’re a ‘program’ now. We’ve got guys that are ‘plugged in’ and good kids, do the right things, and they’re fun to coach. They’re tough and they play tough.”

• It was bittersweet seeing 2018-19 standout Gannon Murray. His big smile belied his disappointment in being sidelined by a torn ACL; however, he assured an observer that his recovery is progressing, and he will return. Whether separated by 3,000 miles, be it a broken wrist or ACL tear, whether it’s the NBA or Penn State Shenango, two great ones will be back –– the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry and Gannon Murray, two personal favorites.

• And speaking of good, hard-working kids, consider this: Before many of you began reading this, PSU-Shenango’s players already were partaking in a 5:30 a.m. practice.

ED FARRELL is assistant sports editor for The Herald. E-mail him at efarrell@sharonherald.com.

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