Before last Wednesday’s game against Mansfield, Millersville men’s basketball coach Fred Thompson was all business: “We need to win these last five games,” he told his team. Millersville was under .500, still trying to claw their way into the PSAC Tournament—and Thompson, himself, was a mere two wins away from hitting the milestone of 250 wins. Forty minutes of basketball and a thrilling three-point victory later, they were one-for-one.
On Saturday, they made it two-for-two.
At Kutztown (8-15, 6-7 PSAC East), the Marauders (11-11, 7-6 PSAC East) put their poor road record (1-9) to the test; luckily, they brought their A-game, trumping their opponents, 94-89. With the win, Millersville clinched a playoff berth, tied Lock Haven for the No. 4 seed and their coach solidified his place in Millersville athletics lore.
“It was spectacular,” Thompson said. “That was a very important game … probably one of the biggest games of the season.”
In Thompson’s 16 seasons as Millersville’s head coach, he has had his fair share of big games. In his first year, even, the Marauders landed in the PSAC Quarterfinals… then the next year… then two years after that. But these early seasons were just a scratch on the surface of his latter success.
After a 26-6 season in 2002-3, the team sparked, championing the PSAC Tournament and ending up in the NCAA Regional Final. Thompson led his team to victory in two other PSAC Championships in 2005 (22-8, 8-4 PSAC East) and 2007 (28-5, 9-3 PSAC East), and adding a Semifinals appearance in 2008 (22-10, 8-4 PSAC East).
“Those were special years that I look back on and remember fondly because of the success we had,” the coach said. “We have a history of success around here.”
And Thompson is looking to continue that.
After making it to the PSAC Quarterfinals last year with a 19-11 overall record, 14-8 against their division, Millersville is surging forward, breaking back to .500 and earning a playoff berth.
But they’re not done yet.
“Games get bigger,” Thompson said, “especially when we’re trying to get a higher seed. We’ve still got a shot at the second or third, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
To shoot is one thing in basketball, however. The only thing that matters is if you make it. But, thanks to two players like Kelvin Parker and Carl Wallace, Millersville was having no problems with that whole “making” part on Saturday.
In a season-high 94-point performance by the Marauders, Parker and Wallace had 52 of them, while accruing 26 each and propelling the team to a season-high shooting percentage of 50 percent. Wallace bested his career-high in points as he went for 10-14, and Parker went 7-15, including 4-8 from behind the arc.
“They did a good job carrying us and we needed that,” Thompson said about his team, which has averaged a meek 70.8 points per road game before Saturday night. “They’ve been nothing but positive since they’ve been back with the team.”
Parker, especially, who was unable to play until midway through the season, has significantly aided the Marauders since coming back Jan. 11. His 19.4 points per game lead the team, and, since his return, he has certainly made his presence felt with his team-leading 30.4 minutes per game.
Outside of Parker and Wallace, though, Thompson gave props to the other players vital to their success over the weekend. Brandon Brown went 4-6 with 14 points, and Nate Bollinger lent a helping hand with 7 assists plus adding 6 points to the Marauders’ total.
About those two seniors, Thompson said, “They showed up and played extremely well for us,” emphasizing the need for more players than a “Big Two” or “Big Three” that has come to be the norm of today’s basketball teams: “It creates an environment of competition. If you’re not performing … you could be replaced by the competition behind you.”
Although it was a team effort, Kutztown was never too far behind.
The largest lead that Millersville amassed was 13 with three-and-a-half minutes left in the game. After missed opportunities and turnovers, however, Kutztown slowly chipped away at the lead until they found themselves one three-pointer away from tying the ballgame with nearly 30 seconds to go.
Amidst the intensity, Johnson made sure he kept his team calm and collected.
“We tell them we still have the lead,” he said about his and his coaching staff’s approach to rocky situations such as these. “All we need to do is go to the free throw line and make free throws.”
With Kutztown in desperation mode and playing hack-a-Marauder throughout the closing seconds, Johnson’s words seemingly got through to his team, as they sunk all six free throws with the game on the line.
“Bottom line was we got to the free throw line when we needed to [and] made free throws when they had to,” the veteran coach said.
Now, after a crucial—and historic—victory, Thompson has no time to celebrate or make this moment about his personal successes, with a battle for one of the top seeds continues within the PSAC as Cheyney and Lock Haven come into town this week.
Heck, Thompson is just thankful he still has a job.
Talking about his 250-win milestone, “Longevity, good players, luck, bless—all of those things come into play when you win that many games,” he said. “I’m just grateful they’ve kept me around.”