The second half opened and, just 10 seconds in, Dave Sobolewski found John Shurna for a layup off a set play. Then, on the next 'Cat possession, Drew Crawford drove and kicked to Shurna, who drained a three from the right corner. Now, some 90 seconds later, here was Crawford driving and dropping in a short hook from the right side, then there he was dropping in another from low in the lane.
Finally, at last, the game was afoot.
It was a game in name only through Sunday's first half at Welsh-Ryan, where the 'Cats were hosting rebuilding Penn State. There was, in fact, little to like about these 20 minutes, which were filled with scattered shots and offensive offenses and--when it came to the hosts -- listlessness and lethargy and ennui.
Sobolewski, the freshman point, was energized through them, and he kept the 'Cats afloat by hitting half of his eight field goal attempts and putting up 10 points. There was life too in guard Alex Marcotullio, who has been struggling with a toe injury, but all around them their teammates appeared to be ailing from a classic New Year's Day hangover.
Shurna took only five shots in this half, missed three of his four three-point attempts, and committed three turnovers. Crawford, in turn, took only two shots and drifted too much and rarely attacked the basket, and then there were these most-revealing stats. The Nittany Lions had 15 offensive rebounds and the 'Cats, just three. The Nittany Lions had 31 field goal attempts and the 'Cats, just 19. The 'Cats had eight turnovers, but when it came to field goals made, the number was just seven.
"None of us were happy in the locker room at halftime. The players, staff," Bill Carmody would later say. "We really didn't talk too much basketball there. I actually challenged these two guys (Crawford and Shurna) to be leaders out there. I thought there was no physicality at all. They had 15 offensive rebounds. And there was no enthusiasm. Two guys. Sobolewski and Marcotullio were the only guys in the first half that, I don't want to use that expression came to play, but just energized, full of life. You're playing college basketball. It should be a great time. And play hard.
"So I singled these two guys out because they should be our leaders, and they have been. . . They were ticked off at me, I was ticked off at them and, in the second half, whatever they said, the heck with you, they came out ready to play. They passed the ball, they were moving faster, they were rebounding. Everything you want them to do, they did. So I was really pleased. I definitely don't care if they're mad at me. Keep playing that way, I'll be very happy."
The 'Cats, angry at their coach, angry at themselves, came out of their locker room down three, but this game turned as soon as Crawford tapped into the aggressive side of his inner self. His team cannot win without this ingredient in the mix, that is how crucial it is to its success, yet later even he would admit, "It was obvious that I wasn't being aggressive enough in the first half. In the second half I was able to do that and I think it helps us as a team."
It helped Shurna get that early three, which tied this one up at 28, and then the second of Crawford's short hooks put the 'Cats up two, which was their first lead since the opening two minutes. Now, as they took control of this game over the next eight minutes, the full package of his skills came out for public display. He drove for another short hook. He assisted on a Sobolewski three and then on a three by Marcotullio. He himself hit three and then, on the next possession, drove hard to the basket, missed the layup while avoiding a charge and saw it tapped home by Shurna. A minute later he dropped another three and finally, two possessions after that, he sidled behind the Penn State zone, streaked down the baseline, accepted a perfect alley-oop from Shurna and drove it home.
"I just try to take what I get in the offense," he would later say when asked about this incandescent stretch. "A lot of times, if you get to the basket a couple times, the defense is going to start sagging off of you. They're going to play back off of you a little bit and give you room to shoot a three. If you knock down a couple threes to start the game, it's the opposite. You've got room to get to the basket. So you just go with the offense, go with how the defense is playing you."
"What it does is, the guys who are playing with him recognize that, OK, he's in the game, he's being aggressive, he's taking advantage of his abilities," said Carmody when asked about the effect of Crawford's aggressiveness. "Sobolewski had a nice game, but it's like (Juice) Thompson last year. You're on the court with a guy like that, you say, 'We can hang with anybody.' That's what these guys (Crawford and Shurna) are. The rest of our team, they have to feel that if these guys are out there, we can play with anybody."
Crawford's dunk put the 'Cats up six at 8:39 and from there the margin just grew, eventually cresting at 13 and ending in their 68-56 win. He would finish seven-of-nine from the field and two-of-two on his threes and five-of-six from the line for 21 points, and also chip in three rebounds, three assists and a block. Shurna, despite going just two-of-seven on his threes, would add 17, and Sobolewski would be big with his 20 ("When he has a game like that, they're tough to beat. Now they've got three scorers instead of just two," Nittany Lion coach Patrick Chambers would say.) Then there was Marcotullio, who scored just six points while hitting two of his four three-point attempts, but put in 20 minutes, the most he has managed in a month. "It's been a difficult process," he would say when asked about the injury that has nagged him for so long. "But just getting out on the court and playing with these guys for an extended period of time felt really good. The teamwork and the chemistry that I can help bring I think is going to be crucial for our success."
The routine, after each 'Cat home game, calls for Carmody and a pair of players to appear in the press room, where the coach makes an opening statement, answers questions, then departs before the players take questions of their own. That is just what happened Sunday night and here, as you have read, he kept referring to these two guys, to his leaders, to Shurna and Crawford. Crawford was, in fact, on stage with him. But the other 'Cat on hand was not Shurna, it was Marcotullio, who looked over at his coach as he got ready to depart and asked, "Did you think I was Shurna?"
"Oh, geez," said Carmody with a chuckle, recognizing at last just who was at his left shoulder. "You're not Shurna."
"Yeah," Marcotullio finally said. "I was thinking that myself."