By Matt Popchock
Although the Section 3 title and a possible number one seed hung precariously in the balance prior to and during its emotional Friday night contest, Greensburg Central Catholic assistant coach Bill Swan had just one question in mind.
“I looked at our kids, and I kept saying, ‘How much fun are you having?'”
The consensus No. 1 team in boys’ Class AA will have loads of fun waiting for its playoff positioning to be determined, of that much we are certain.
The Centurions (12-0, 20-2) embraced a boisterous and antagonistic atmosphere, surviving a 68-65 nail-biter against arch-rival Jeannette at a jam-packed Jeannette High School. As a result, Greensburg Central, which has won seven straight and has yet to lose to a Class AA opponent, gets to celebrate the section title by itself, while Jeannette (10-2, 14-6) settles for second place, having seen its six-game streak end.
“[Head coach] Adrian Batts does such a great job with that program. Those kids play hard, and it’s always a great game and a great high school basketball atmosphere when you come down here,” head coach Greg Bisignani said. “We were just lucky to score more points than they did tonight.”
Senior swingman Jesse Reed entered the game averaging a team-best 16.7 points per game, but Greensburg Central found a number of open looks for junior big man P.J. McLaughlin, who quietly stole the show with a game-high 19 points and 13 rebounds.
“They really tried to take Jesse away…Darius [Brown] was playing a lot of good defense on him,” said McLaughlin, also humbled by the victory. “That gave me a lot of one-on-ones in the post, so I just went to work.”
Nevertheless, Reed was there when it mattered most, pumping in nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter while snagging 11 boards in the process before fouling out late.
“Because I was struggling earlier in the game, I don’t think they expected [my teammates] to keep coming to me, but I had to keep trying, and eventually I got lucky and made a few shots,” Reed said.
Although he didn’t enjoy a double-double, senior guard Jacob Swan was another Centurion starter who reached double figures, and also played an instrumental role in GCC outlasting the Jayhawks in that hectic final period. He scored ten of his 17 in the fourth, including five of his nine free throws, as Greensburg Central outscored the hosts 24-23 over the final eight minutes.
“Every guy gave every little ounce of heart he had and put it out there,” Reed added. “We came together as a team when it mattered.”
Reserve guard Duke Brown’s three-pointer from the right wing, his first of two, gave Jeannette a 45-44 lead in the early stages of the fourth, but Reed’s hustle inside the paint proved a tad too much for its defense to handle, and he made several buckets underneath to keep the Jayhawks at bay.
As the physical intensity of the game continued to escalate, senior point guard Darius Brown, one of three Jayhawk starters to hit double digits and perhaps their best free-throw shooter, calmly answered with ten of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, six of them coming at the line. But Jeannette still didn’t have quite enough answers for GCC’s man-to-man defense, despite the fact both teams spent much of the second half in the bonus.
The first half belonged to the Jayhawks and their own man-to-man “D,” which had allowed under 52 points per game, fewest in Section 4. Junior forward Demetrius Cox, who finished with 11 rebounds, scored ten of his team-best 18 points, and Jordan Batts, playing in his last regular-season home game, added all 14 of his to push Jeannette to a 35-31 halftime lead.
McLaughlin controlled the offensive glass for Greensburg Central, and like the rest of his teammates, took advantage of multiple free throw chances early on to keep the Centurions within striking distance. The foul trouble for Jeannette reached its zenith when Batts and Matt Shrum each got their fifth personal in the final minutes. Losing the former’s scoring talent proved to be a damaging blow to the Jayhawks.
“Jeannette is such a great team, and their pressure took us out of a lot of what we do,” Bisignani said. “So we tried to spread the floor and use our dribble-drive to get some good looks to P.J.
“We knew coming in that this was going to be a fight–and we told [our team] that–and they played hard the whole game.”
Greensburg Central had regrouped and turned the game around for good in the third quarter, limiting the high-flying Jayhawks to three field goals. McLaughlin couldn’t be stopped, and Ben Klimchock hit a pair of running layups, both of which gave GCC one-point leads that it would build upon in the long run.
“The first time they played us they really hugged our outside shooters, and I think we expected that tonight,” Bisignani added. “That opened things up for P.J. inside, and he’s six-seven. Jordan did a great job defending him, but he’s six-one. That matchup got him into foul trouble, and we were able to take advantage.”
It became clear that its top-ranked offense, one of only two in Class AA to average over 70 points a game, would not be denied, and now, for Greensburg Central Catholic, the fun that Coach Swan referred to–the real fun–might have only begun.
“It’s a feeling we’ve gotten used to, but once we throw it up in 11 days, the rankings mean nothing, the seedings mean nothing. We’ll enjoy this now and get ready for [the playoffs] in a couple weeks,” Bill Swan said.
“These are the games I live for,” Reed crowed. “It’s awesome, something I can’t even explain.”
For coverage of the WPIAL Boys’ Basketball Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports later this week!