The Road to Playoffs

The Cal Vulcans Win once again against the Seton Hill Griffins


Jeff Helsel

Basketball Court in the Convocation Center

Andrew White, Staff Writer

The PennWest California Vulcans were set to host division rival Seton Hill in the first round of the PSAC Men’s Basketball Playoffs this past Monday, Feb. 27. This would be the third matchup between these two teams this year. The Vulcans won the first two in the regular season.

This game would prove different, as both teams seemed ready to go to war and the intensity in the building leading up to the game was that of a playoff atmosphere.

Sophomore guard, Cam Polak, talked ahead of the game about how confident he was feeling about his jump shot, and it showed just how that confidence can translate to stellar play. When asked what was contributing most to his success, Polak stressed just how hard he and his teammates had been working.

 “We’ve all been grinding in the gym, putting in a lot of work,” said Polak. “It’s all about getting the reps in and having that confidence while doing it. We’re a tough team to beat when we’re able to get off to fast starts, and that’s what we’re trying to do tonight.”

This has been Polak’s first year with the Vulcans and he has started every game this season. Polak has been averaging 14 points per game and leads the team in three-point field goals with 73 made attempts on the season. 

Polak’s ability to create his own shot and also his work ethic off-the-ball when trying to get open helps the offense tremendously by pulling defenders out to the three-point line and opening up the middle in order to try and contain him, which is no easy task.

Jermaine Hall Jr., redshirt junior for the Vulcans and last week’s PSAC Player of the week, said Polak’s a great shooter.

“Passing the ball and finding open shooters is key for us to win games like these,” Hall said. 

As it got closer to tip off, the tension in the building could be felt at every level. Fans from Seton Hill were just as present as the Vulcan family.  

It’s obvious that this California team was hungry and ready to make some noise in the PSAC Playoffs, since they have really hit their stride as of late. They have won six of their last seven games coming into the playoffs, with their only loss coming to third ranked IUP, where they fell behind early but made a second half push, outsourcing IUP 50-38 in the half, but still falling just short, 80-77 at home Saturday. They have also won their last seven games against Seton Hill.

As the game began, sophomore forward Keith Palek started off hot, hitting his first two shots from the floor early on, setting the tone for California’s offense. Palek seemed to be almost unstoppable early on when he got the ball at the top of the key, and his mid-range jumpers were falling early and often. With their offense running through him in the middle, it seemed most efficient; Palek had the option to shoot over anyone, drive to the bucket, or swing it to the other side of the floor once defenders from Seton Hill closed in on him. It was obvious Palek was feeling it, letting his emotions show early on after hitting a contested mid-range jump shot at the 8 minute mark of the first half. Cam Polak was also finding his shot early on as well, hitting two tough 3’s in the first eight minutes of play.

Seton Hill, on the other hand, was attacking the paint early and often, breaking down Cal’s defense by driving the lane and kicking it out to shooters on the perimeter. They were in control of the paint nearly the whole first half. However, big-man Gabe Gilespie got himself in foul trouble early, notching his third foul just 14 minutes into the game, forcing him to miss the rest of the first half.

With just over four minutes to play in the first half, the crowd was brought to their feet as Keith Palek hit Cam Polak with a behind-the-back pass from the top of the key, which led Cam Polak into a wide open reverse layup giving the Vulcans the lead, 32-31. Then, with just over two minutes to play in the first half, Keith Palek hit a big three-pointer, putting his team up four. California ended the first half on a 14-4 run to go from being down six, to being up by four at halftime, 39-35. 

The second half started with two costly turnovers by the Vulcans, one leading to a thunderous dunk on the other end by Samuel Tabe of Seton Hill’s Griffins, looking like the turning point they needed to stay in this game. That only lasted for a minute however, as California went on to hit back-to-back-to-back threes at the 17 minute mark of the second half, securing their biggest lead of the game by either team, up 48-37.

The game continued to be back and forth, and after the timeout by Seton Hill, they went on to score eight straight points cutting the lead down to three just like that. Defensively, the Vulcans were limiting the Griffins when they were getting into their offensive sets, allowing most of their points in the second half via transition or in the paint. The Griffins offense seemed mostly built around specific ball-handlers, pick-n-rolls, and attempting to penetrate the Vulcans defense, which California did a great job of slowing down.

The Vulcans continued to play well, and some big plays by redshirt freshman Donald Whitehead Jr. lead the charge in their second half performance. Whitehead came off the bench and provided a spark for the Vulcans and helped by forcing the Griffins defense to focus on him as well. Whitehead hit two important jumpshots to get his team back in rhythm. 

“I know my teammates believe in me,” Whitehead said after the game. “They want me to be aggressive and create for myself and them, so I knew going out there I was going to be aggressive and do whatever it takes for our team to win.” 

Whitehead finished with 15 points.The Vulcans continued their second-half success, as two big three’s by Cam Polak followed by a layup by Keith Palek put the Vulcans up 66-57, with just over seven minutes left in the game. Cam Polak continued to be a huge part of the Vulcans success in the second half, as he upped his three-point total to six for the night with less than five minutes left in the game, which gave California their biggest lead of the night, 74-60. Cam Polak finished with a career-high 24 points while hitting six shots from beyond the arch. The passing display by the Vulcans was quite impressive, seeming to always find the open shooter. When asked about where they found success against Seton Hill’s defense, Jermaine Hall credited their passing.

“They (Seton Hill) do a lot of different things on defense,” Hall said. “The best thing we did tonight was pass the ball. We passed the ball really well and knocked down shots when we had to. Cam had a wonderful game with shooting the ball and Keith did his thing as well.” 

The Vulcans were controlling the tempo of the game as their offense went from quick and fluent to slow and steady, running out the clock with every possession.  

Seton Hill was still getting their chances, but failed to execute when shooting free throws, missing the front-end of a one-and-one three times in the last five minutes of the game, which could have given them a six-point swing. The free throw difference seemed to be crucial to the outcome of the game, as California shot 20-21 from the line and Seton Hill shot 6-12.

California would go on to win the game, 84-69. Cam Polek and Keith Palak combined for 50 points in the game to go along with 10 combined three-pointers between the two of them.

When asked about capitalizing on the chance to play IUP again, Hall said he thought they’ll need to do the same exact thing as last time.

“We came into that game ready to play them, and like Coach said, it’s a dog fight out there,” Hall said. “We have to be ready and bring the pressure like we did last time and keep that same focus all game.”