By Matt Popchock
There will be a new state champion in Class AAA hockey this season, and whoever earns that honor in Class AAA boys’ basketball will be different than the one many might have guessed.
Montour used a staunch man-to-man defense and a patient offense to stun New Castle, 50-43, in overtime, at the Palumbo Center Tuesday night in the second round of the PIAA Basketball Championships. The Red Hurricane (27-1), the recently-anointed WPIAL champions, had led District 7 with 79.1 points per game.
For the second year in a row, the Spartans (22-4) got a signature win on The Bluff, albeit later than they had hoped. Last season they upended Section 5 rival South Fayette for the WPIAL title, and though Hampton upset them in the district semifinals this time, Montour used the same formula for victory the last time it played at Palumbo.
“I thought we did a good job keeping them out of the lane, and the times they did get into the lane, as you saw, it was usually a kick-out for an open jump shot,” head coach Adam Kaufman said. “That was our key. We wanted to make sure they were shooting over the top of a hand.”
Offensively, this was a chippy, turnover-filled effort by both teams, but Kaufman’s efforts to shorten the game ultimately worked, as forward Ryan Lewis seized the moment. He pumped in a game-best 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting, grabbing eight rebounds in the process, and was generally the most consistent player on the floor for either school.
“That team messed up our undefeated season, and the rest of the city forgot about us. But we just proved the Montour Spartans aren’t going anywhere,” said the 6’5″ senior, who was judiciously ruled eligible for hoops this academic year after being ruled ineligible for football. “I had a lot of motivation for this one, and I told Coach Kaufman we were going to get this one.”
“The way they defend on the perimeter, it’s hard to get dribble penetration, and that’s something we rely on. They have quick guards,” Kaufman said. “That was something we had to exploit. Our guys got him the ball when he wanted the ball, and when he was fronted, he was willing to work. He executed what we practice really well.”
When last these teams met, New Castle was able to dictate the tempo, and eventually pull away for a 68-58 win over the previously unbeaten Spartans at Geneva College Jan. 21. The rematch, however, had a much different complexion.
The Red Hurricane, who were led by Malik Hooker’s 13 points, seven boards, and two blocks, managed a tenuous third-quarter lead until Devin Wilson’s buzzer-beater in front of his own bench tied the game, 31-31, after three quarters. Montour held a 38-35 lead until Brandon Richards hit a three of his own with a minute left, made a steal, then made a pair of free throws.
But with 18.9 seconds left, Lewis forced OT by banking one off the glass from the right post. Shawn Anderson, who finished with 12 points, five rebounds, and four assists, couldn’t hit a 15-foot jumper in traffic before time expired.
The normally dependable backcourt duo of Anderson and Corey Eggleston just wasn’t the same. Anderson got into foul trouble early–and late–and Eggleston, who was invisible from the second quarter forward, was one of a number of New Castle players who struggled to score inside as the game wound down.
Montour will face another unbeaten squad, General McLane, in the PIAA Class AAA Quarterfinals Friday at a site and time to be determined. General McLane defeated Beaver on Tuesday for the right to be there.
Meanwhile, an Upper St. Clair hockey team that was hit hard by graduation took to the ice at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon having won three in a row, and having gotten its act together before the close of the regular season. But No. 10 seed State College, which hadn’t escaped the beginning of the Penguins Cup Playoffs since moving from the Open Class, erased a 2-0 deficit in the second period en route to a 5-2 win over the Pennsylvania Cup champs in Class AAA First Round action Tuesday.
Jake Puccetti and David Penkrot struck early to give the Panthers (11-10-2) their two-goal advantage. Team scoring leader Dan Moscone got the Little Lions (12-10-1) on the board just 41 seconds into the middle frame, and tied it 62 seconds later.
Mike Ambrose, who fought hard, making 28 saves in a losing effort, made that score stand up until the ice cut. Once again, though, early offense burned USC; Dalton Brown supplied the game-winner, the first of his two goals, just 49 seconds into the third period.
Section 4 rival Norwin, the No. 8 seed, was also victorious Tuesday, blowing away Pittsburgh Central Catholic, 7-2, in further First Round competition at Center Ice in Delmont.
State College will face top seed and Section 4 champion Penn-Trafford in the Class AAA Quarterfinals at Center Ice Thursday at 6:30, while the Knights visit second-seeded Canon-McMillan, last year’s runner-up, at Ice-O-Plex in Southpointe Friday at 6:30.
Check Joe Sager’s story on the PIHL Network for more on the Upper St. Clair-State College playoff contest, and check back here later for more hoops and hockey postseason coverage.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)