One of the most heated rivalries in the Lone Star Conference in recent years takes center stage 5 p.m. ET Saturday when Angelo State travels to Stephenville, Texas and plays Tarleton State.
It makes sense why WatchESPN and ESPN App is broadcasting this game. The last two years Tarleton defeated Angelo in the South Central Regional championship game to advance to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.
After losing a heartbreaker to Augustana, the eventual national champion, in the quarterfinals last year, Tarleton State has returned this season motivated to exceed what it accomplished the last two years. In the 2014-15 season, the Texans reached the semifinals.
“We are very hungry,” said senior Chantz Chambers. “Last year we were two games away from a national championship. And the year before that a game away. We are trying to do what the other teams tried to do for the longest. I talked to some of the alumni who ask ‘are you guys going to bring it home this year.’ We are just trying to make it there first. If we get to that point, we are going to give it everything we have.”
And that is the attitude Chambers is taking into each of the five regular-season games left before the start of the Lone Star Conference Tournament.
“Every game means something because it is my last games in the Lone Star playing against these teams that I have seen,” Chambers said. “Every gym I go to, I am not going to see it again. I am just playing ball each game at a time and live that moment.”So far this year, Tarleton is having a better season than Angelo. The Texans are 20-3 overall, 11-2 in conference and ranked No. 11 in the NABC top 25. They have already beaten Angelo, which is 13-7 overall.
Records and previous results are irrelevant when these two teams meet. A year ago, the two teams met four times. Tarleton won the first game. Angelo then beat them by one point and then won again in the conference tournament. Tarleton won the most important one, the regional championship game.
“You will see Division I talent out there, no doubt about that,” Tarleton coach Lonn Reisman said viewers will see Saturday. “Angelo has a great program. They have an outstanding team. Our games always go down to the very end. They are tough. This game will be no different. It will be a very tough game for us to win.”
Reisman said Tarleton has had a good year so far.
“But you know, you never know when your next win comes,” Reisman said. “Look at all the upsets last Saturday and you know what I am talking about.”
The Texans conclude the regular season with their next two games at home followed by three straight road games.
“I think it is a tough finish,” Reisman said. “We are going to some of the toughest places there are. You know that is part of the game. You can’t control schedule in your conference.
“We have been a good road team this year. We are 5-1 in conference road games. You have to go on the road for the conference tournament. You hope you can host the region at home, but there are a lot of great teams in the region. I don’t know where we will be. We won the region on the road last year.”
As every college basketball coach knows, the key is to play your best in March.
“I don’t think we have peaked, which is always good,” Reisman said. “We don’t want to peak quite yet, but I am hoping to see in the next two weeks for it to start to come to fruition. We have won a lot of ball games, but good teams peak at the right time. We did it the last two years. I am hoping we do that this year.”
Father-son combination working well at Indiana (Pa.)
In the 2014-15 season, Indiana University (Pa.) made it to the Division II national championship game. During the fall of that school year, Dante Lombardi had already signed a national letter of intent to play basketball at IUP despite having Division I interest.
For more than half his life, Lombardi was around the program and knew all about the positive culture that existed within it.
“I saw how connected they were,” Dante said. “I talked with some of my other high school teammates who were at other Division I schools, and they were ‘we didn’t get along with other teammates.’ I saw how connected IUP was. I knew early in my senior year I wanted to come here.”
The decision has worked well for Dante. Last year he was freshman of the year in the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference West Division, helping the Crimson Hawks go 21-8 and narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament.
IUP is having an even better season this year. The Crimson Hawks, who will play Edinboro at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on the American Sports Network, are 22-2 overall, 17-1 in the PSAC and ranked No. 4 in the NABC top 25.“This season has been really fun,” Dante said. “Last year was fun. I feel this year, as a team, we are more connected than last year, from top to bottom. Everyone is having a blast. We are enjoying our journey right now. We are enjoying every step of the way.”
It is the eighth straight season IUP has won at least 20 games. Coaching the Crimson Hawks through the run of success is Joe Lombardi, who is in his 11th season at IUP.
If you are wondering, Joe and Dante are related. They are father and son.
“It has been a blessing to have him in the program,” Joe said. “Dante, in his senior year, was more than likely to get a Division I offer but signed with us in the fall because he wanted to be part of the success of this program and culture of this program. Personally, that was flattering he wanted to do that and be a part of what we have.
“He has made a lot of progress since last year. I think he has improved a lot. Last year he was playing off the ball. This year he had to grow into taking control of the team and going against other teams giving him the best shot every night. He has proved he is worthy to be out on the floor. He is an extremely hard worker. He is committed to the team and the process.”
The entire team has grown together. Only one player remains from the national runner-up team. Joe was pleased the way the Crimson Hawks played a year ago. Only a couple of upsets in other conference tournaments prevented them from returning to the NCAA Tournament.
“I thought last year’s team was NCAA worthy,” Joe said. “All I can ask of a team is to be NCAA worthy. You can’t control how conference tournaments are going to go.”
The Crimson Hawks are putting themselves in position that leaves no doubt they belong in the NCAA Tournament this season.
“Speaking for all the returners, it put fuel to the fire because last year we had more than 20 wins and we didn’t get in,” Dante said. “We saw teams in other regions with fewer wins get in. It made some of us angry, but it was beneficial because it made us work harder. We all worked really hard in the offseason.”
Joe wants his players to continue the process of getting better as conference tournament time nears.
“I have found over the years, especially this time of the year, the more individuals you have improving different parts of their game, it will have the most impact on the team improving,” Joe said.
“They have approached things with great maturity. They have done a good job of preparation for each game and a good job with their energy level. I think over the course of a long season some teams lose some games or give away some games because they are not totally engaged in the preparation. We strive for consistency and to bring a passion and a focus every night.”