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PSNK men’s basketball works to overcome inexperience

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A little more than a week ago, Penn State New Kensington men’s basketball coach Art McCray loaded a young and unproven team onto a charter bus and set off on five-hour trip to New York to compete in the Quality Inn Invitational at Davis College.

The trip turned out to be what one might expect when a team starts four freshmen and a junior-college transfer: inconsistent. PSNK returned to its Upper Burrell campus a few days later after losing both games.

“Truthfully, I felt that these were two games that we should have won,” said McCray, in his sixth season as coach. “I mean no disrespect to the other teams, but as a coaching staff and the players, the perspective is that we gave them the game more than they took it.”

The Lions let a 14-point halftime lead slip away in an 88-85 loss to SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry before falling 73-68 to Christendom (Va.) to close out the two-day invitational.

“I see that we can put up points quick,” McCray said. “Now it’s a matter of holding teams, and we give up too (many points). I think (that) weekend was a lesson. If you don’t get a lesson from it, then it really becomes a loss.”

The lesson for PSNK (3-2) was that while McCray’s Lions are young, they can run the floor and score, sometimes to the team’s own detriment.

“I’ve always wanted to have a team that could go, that can really just go,” McCray said. “We have some guys right now that I think could really do that.”

PSNK will start five guards this year, and to make up for the lack of size, the Lions are going to play fast. McCray said freshman Carrington Smith, a New Castle grad, could be the fastest player he’s coached during his tenure at PSNK. And he can shoot.

“I thinks he’s a a steal,” McCray said about Smith. “He is one of those players I think that was overlooked.”

Smith ranks sixth in the Penn State University Athletic Conference averaging 18.2 points. Fellow freshman Jacob Richardson is tops on the team with 18.4 ppg and is fifth in the PSUAC. Brett Ivory and Lamar Lewis round out the freshmen quartet. Junior-college transfer Tavon Ngangum brings much-needed experience to PSNK’s starting five.

“You just can’t rely on talent and speed,” McCray said. “I can put five guys out there that can knock it down. It’s just a matter of being consistent and taking the right shot at the right time.”

The Lions got one more late addition. When former Highlands basketball standout and former Allegheny College player Jamison Nee enrolled at PSNK this fall, he was well aware the school had a basketball team but had no intentions of playing.

That changed when Nee walked through the doors of the PSNK Field House a few weeks ago to take in PSNK’s 117-55 win over Westmoreland County Community College. The basketball bug bit him again.

“It’s fun to be back out,” said Nee. “I thought I was done, but I missed it so I thought I’d come back out.”

McCray cracked a smile when he talked about Nee joining a team in need of a veteran.

“He really fits in,” McCray said. “I’m not saying that he’s going to come in and get a starting post right away, but (it helps) to have a veteran guard help groom our freshmen guards.”

McCray is hoping Nee gets his basketball legs under him before the Lions make the trip east to Penn State Mont Alto on Tuesday to open the PSUAC season.

Nee joined at exactly the right time. McCray’s lone returning player, Wilson Rojas, is on the shelf with a walking cast on his right leg. Rojas, who injured his leg during preseason camp, is expected to return to the lineup by late December or early January.

McCray has been eager to see what Rojas, a bench player during his first two seasons, can do since the North Carolina native returned to campus this fall. Rojas earned a starting spot before his injury.

“His improvement from over the summer is amazing,” McCray said. “He may be the biggest improvement I’ve seen in a player in the offseason since I’ve been here. His confidence is there as well.”

McCray is optimistic his young Lions will be the building blocks he needs to finally turn around the program.

“It’s just being able to put it all together, getting them to jell, make sure they remain unselfish and this program is ready to take a turn,” McCray said.

William Whalen is a freelance writer.

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