Asked to describe life in the city of Erie, which sits on the south shore of Lake Erie in Northwestern Pennsylvania and gets mercilessly buffeted with lake-effect snow, Nicholas Lang gets right to the point.
“Cold,” the recent Linganore High grad said when reached by phone on Wednesday.
But the city of approximately 100,000 people also embraces basketball, serving as the home of the Erie BayHawks, the Atlanta Hawks’ NBA G League affiliate. At the collegiate level, the Division II Mercyhurst University and Gannon University men’s basketball teams are fierce rivals in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
It’s a nice environment for someone such as Lang, who grew up in a family full of basketball gym rats. His father, Tom, played at Georgetown; his older brother, Thomas, now leads Shepherd University in scoring; and his younger brother, Sean, just finished his junior season Linganore, where he was the team’s leading scorer.
While Nicholas, now a freshman guard at Mercyhurst, became quite accustomed to success on the basketball court, it was far from guaranteed for the first year of his collegiate career. The Lakers finished a game under .500 last year, and while they were seasoned, the five players in Mercyhurst’s starting lineup entered the current season with just three combined years of experience in Lakers coach Gary Manchel’s system.
None of that changed Lang’s mindset.
“I was expecting to win games,” Lang said. “That’s really it. I don’t like losing.”
“I’ve had success all through high school. I didn’t expect that to change.”
From that standpoint, nothing has changed.
Lang and his teammates will play in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II tournament, drawing undefeated Northwest Missouri State University at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Lakers had played in the NCAA tournament just two other times in school history, never advancing this far.
“Really, I don’t think anyone outside of our locker room saw this run coming,” said Lang, who on Tuesday scored 12 points in his team’s Atlantic Region championship victory over West Liberty.
That’s because Mercyhurst had somewhat of a motley crew going into the season.
The Lakers’ leading scorer this year, Jason Massey, is a graduate student who played at Brown the previous year. Two other starters, Nelson Maxwell and Patrick Smith, transferred in from Cleveland State and Maryland’s Montgomery Community College, respectively, last year. MiyKah McIntosh, a freshman from Canada, also starts.
Defensively, Manchel asked his team to master a matchup zone defense. Doing so, Lang said, initially presented a challenge — for both upperclassmen and underclassmen. Offensively, the Lakers were asked to slow the pace of the game. According to Lang, they relied on a base set of six plays and different variations of them going into each game, with that set of plays changing for each opponent.
To start the season, Mercyhurst lost scrimmages to Walsh and Ashland — two teams that also made this year’s NCAA Division II tournament — and Division I Niagara.
“Coach [Manchel] told us from the start that he thought we could have a great year,” Lang said. “Once we got it down, once we started learning the defense and learning the offense, everything started clicking for us.”
Things started to click soon after, Lang said, because the team found a way to become a close-knit group. Regularly playing pickup games since the beginning of August helped. Off the court, the Lakers ate dinner together most every day, often gathering to play cards during their spare time.
“As a team, we definitely thought we were going to have success just because we got along so well from the start,” Lang said. “The chemistry was great.”
Last year, Lang was doing a little bit of everything for his high school team, leading the Lancers in scoring, rebounding and assists. He compares his role on Mercyhurst as being similar to the one he had during his sophomore year at Linganore, when he played with a strong group of seniors in Thomas Lang, Jack Staub, Carter Schmidt and Keegan Lane.
Lang averages 4.2 points and 2.4 rebounds, shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 42 percent (21-of-50) from 3-point range.
“We have other guys that can score and other guys that can run the offense,” said Lang, who has played in every game this season coming off the bench. “I just play defense, give my best effort and just try to win the game.”
Thoughts of experiencing victory deep into the postseason surfaced when the Lakers beat Indiana University of Pennsylvania on the road in early February, handing the Crimson Hawks just their second loss of the season. Many in Division II basketball circles, Lang said, believed IUP was capable of winning a national championship.
The Crimson Hawks earned the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Region. But the Lakers, who needed to win their first- and second-round games in the PSAC tournament to have any chance of even making the NCAA tournament, toppled them in the second round.
Six of the eight teams in the Elite Eight were No. 1 seeds in their respective regions. The exceptions: Mercyhurst and Southern Indiana — two No. 4 seeds. After the Division II region tournaments, the remaining teams were re-seeded, with the Lakers receiving the No. 8 seed and jumping into a Cinderella role.
Lang was a tad irked by the team not being able to fly to the Elite Eight. In order for teams to have the expenses of those flights covered, their respective colleges must be 600 or more miles away from Evansville. The distance between Erie and Evansville is approximately 570 miles.
For Lang, that doesn’t take away from what has been a rewarding journey.
“It’s like a dream to play in the NCAA tournament, but to make a run like this is awesome, especially with the team we have,” Lang said. “It’s a really close team.
“We put the work in, and we feel that this is what we’re getting out of it. We feel that we’ve earned it.”
Senior guard Terrell Campbell (St. John’s) started 26 games for Penn State-Mont Alto (20-9), averaging 3.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and a team-high 5.0 assists.
Seniors Ian Eversull (Urbana) and Jared Ruiz (Oakdale) ended their collegiate careers by helping Hood (17-10) reach the MAC Commonwealth playoffs for the first time in four years. Ruiz averaged 8.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game while shooting 40.2 percent (35-of-87) from 3-point range. Eversull started all 27 games, averaging 7.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field.
Freshman forward Braxton Foreman (Thomas Johnson) played in 29 games for Angelina College (18-14), averaging 3.0 points and 1.8 rebounds per game.
Sophomore Dwayne Garner (Frederick) earned second-team All-Region XX honors for Frederick Community College, averaging 10.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He shot 50.2 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range. His teammate, sophomore Ben Meredith (Frederick), was the third-leading scorer (12.2 ppg) for the Cougars (20-11). He also averaged 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per contest.
Junior guard Thomas Lang (Linganore) earned second-team All-MEC honors for Shepherd (14-16) after leading the Rams in scoring (18.0 points per game), setting the school record for 3-pointers made (105) and reaching the 1,000-point milestone. In his best performance of the season, Lang scored 36 points against the University of Virginia-Wise on Jan. 12, including the game-winning shot with 11 seconds left in an 80-79 Rams win. Lang went 13-of-17 from the field and 9-of-13 from beyond the arc.
Sophomore forward Laila Abdul-Rahman (Frederick) played in 27 games for Stevenson (14-13), averaging 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds.
Freshman forward Meghan Carlson (Oakdale) made 15 starts for York College (11-15), averaging 4.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
Sophomore forward Sydney Clayton (St. John’s) was the second-leading scorer (17.1 ppg) and leading rebounder (7.5 rpg) at Shepherd (11-18), earning her second-team All-MEC honors. Her teammate, senior forward Liz Moormann (Oakdale), averaged 6.7 points and 4.6 rebounds. Also, former Frederick Force player, sophomore forward Gemma Mochi, played in 18 games, averaging 1.4 points.
Senior guard Megan Kelly (Linganore) was the third-leading scorer at Frostburg State (15-11), averaging 9.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
Sophomore guard Lauren Keeney (Middletown) played in 17 games, averaging 6.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists for Hood (6-19), while freshman guard Rian Wright (Walkersville) averaged 3.0 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists over 11 games.
Junior guard Regan Lohr (Urbana) was the second-leading scorer at Marymount (22-5), averaging 14.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game while scoring her 1,000th career point along the way. She also shot a team-high 84 percent from the foul-line.
Freshman forward Jessica Mitchell (Linganore) played in eight games for UNC-Wilmington (18-12).
Sophomore center Nadia Mirich (Oakdale) played in six games for New Haven (18-12).
Junior forward Cameron Pitts (Oakdale) averaged 3.5 points and 3.5 rebounds over 21 games for Carnegie Mellon (12-13).
Sophomore guard Taylor Stafford (St. John’s) played in 21 games for Fairmont State (13-16).
Freshman guard Olivia Weinel (Linganore) played for a Shenandoah team that made an improbable run to the NCAA Division III tournament, becoming the lowest-seeded team (No. 8 seed) to win the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament. Weinel played in 29 games, averaging 5.3 points and 2.3 rebounds for the Hornets (16-14), who suffered a 77-49 loss to DeSales in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore Danny Bertoni (Middletown) posted a 15-16 record at the University of Maryland at 141 pounds. Also, redshirt freshman Chase De Maille (Oakdale) and freshman Jake Nielson (Urbana) wrestled at 157 pounds for the Terrapins, recording 3-12 and 4-8 marks, respectively.
Freshman Josh Paige (Middletown) went 5-10 at 157 pounds for Messiah College.
Redshirt junior Tyler Makosy (Urbana) was 23-17 at 157 pounds for UNC-Pembroke, earning a berth in the NCAA Division II championships along the way.
Redshirt freshman Sean Mullican (Middletown) posted a 10-8 record as a heavyweight at West Virginia University.
Senior Tucker Ziegler (Middletown) went 16-16 at 197 pounds at Brown University.