By Dave Seamon
Just a little too much Chester and too little time doomed the Hazleton Area boys basketball team in its PIAA Class AAAA second-round playoff game at Bethlehem Freedom High School on Wednesday.
The Clippers (24-5) withstood every Cougars challenge – and there were many – to hang on for a thrilling 79-71 victory that sent the District 1 champions into the state quarterfinals against West Chester Rustin, a winner over Parkland last night.
“I never breathe a sigh of relief until there’s 0.1 left on the clock,’’ winning coach Larry Yarbray said. “You saw how the momentum can switch in any direction in a matter of seconds. You can never relax. I had to tell my guys they (the Cougars) were going to keep playing hard and we had to match their energy. They had nothing to lose, so we had to switch gears a little, up to the third or fourth gear.’’
Mahir Johnson pumped in a team-high 29 points, including a crucial three-point play with 56.1 seconds left, giving the Clippers enough breathing room to survive one of their toughest playoff challenges to date.
“That three-point play was a back-breaker,’’ Hazleton Area head coach Mike Joseph said. “We got a big stop out of our triangle(-and-two), but we didn’t block (Johnson) out and he made a big play, the biggest play in the game without question.’’
Chester countered every Hazleton Area run despite a heroic effort from Sal Biasi and his Cougar teammates.
Biasi finished with 34 points, including eight three-pointers against a host of Chester defenders, even though he didn’t practice on Monday or Tuesday after spraining his ankle in an opening-round win over Stroudsburg. Brett Barron contributed 18 points on six triples and Kyle Karmonick and Chris Woodring added eight points apiece.
“Nobody expected us to win this game; nobody even gave us a chance,’’ Biasi said. “We’re the only people that believed in ourselves. That’s what took us to within three points of those guys (the Clippers) with about a minute left. We just needed a little luck and maybe shot to go in here or there or get a call to go our way and we could have pulled it off.’’
The Clippers dominated the early going, sprinting out to a 17-5 lead just four minutes into the game. But the Cougars (22-5) simply refused to wilt, pulling within 19-14 by the end of the first quarter as Biasi sandwiched a jumper and three-pointer around a Barron three.
“You take away that 17-5 run at the beginning of the game and we outplayed them,’’ Biasi said. “We were right there with them.’’
Both teams played the second quarter at a break-neck pace, with Hazleton Area closing the gap to 22-21 on Woodring’s driving layup and two free throws. Still, the Cougars never could pull ahead as Marquis Collins came off the Chester bench to put in consecutive baskets, Tyrell Sturdivant drove the lane for a deuce and Johnson added a layup to put the Clippers on top 30-23 with four minutes left before halftime.
Back came the Cougars as Biasi knocked down an NBA-range triple and spun in the lane for a hoop and Will Hierro fed Hunter Samec for a layup that tied it at 30 at the 2:20 mark and had Hazleton Area’s large following fired up.
The game was knotted at 32 when a Keyonte Watkins three-pointer gave the Clippers a three-point edge at the break.
“Their length got to us a little bit,’’ Joseph said. “But we fought them hard on the boards. We were right there.’’
Chester started the second half much like it began the first as Johnson’s personal five-point run quickly gave the Clippers an eight-point advantage. But the Cougars got two triples from Biasi and another from Barron to keep the heat on and trail only 44-41.
The Clippers, however, showed their own three-point prowess as Khaleeq Campbell and Watkins buried threes to yo-yo their team’s lead to 54-42, the 12-point margin their largest of the night.
But in a recurring theme, Biasi connected from beyond the arc and Woodring converted a steal into a layup that chopped Chester’s lead to 59-52 entering the final quarter.
Chester’s lead grew to eight less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, but back-to-back three-pointers by Barron and Biasi again got the Cougars within four. Their deficit stayed between three and five until Johnson’s three-point play allowed Chester to exhale and the air to start to come out of the Cougars’ balloon. If they had taken a lead, who knows what might have happened.
“Our bigs (inside players) played harder than they ever have, we were hitting threes and we did everything we possibly could do to win,’’ Biasi said. “We just didn’t get any luck and maybe they did.’’
The loss ends the career of eight Hazleton Area seniors, including Biasi, Barron, Woodring, Hierro, Karmonick, Samec, Jon Fogarty and Mark Brehm.
“Every one of our seniors played terrific,’’ Joseph said. “If there’s a better player in the state of Pennsylvania than Sal Biasi he must be pretty darn good… To do what he did on an ankle that was about 80 percent – there’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t have even tried to play tonight – and spent the past two days only rehabbing his ankle to get it ready, amazing. He started out slow, but our other guys picked him up. Brett hit a ton of threes… Chris Woodring played unbelievably well, Kyle played terrific, Hunter played terrific, Will and ‘Fogs’ (Fogarty) gave us great energy and Reynal (Santana) contributed.
“If somebody played them (the Clippers) harder this year, then that plays hard,’’ he added. “I thought that we gave them everything that they could handle. We just didn’t get that one little bit of luck that you need to have to knock off somebody with that much size and athleticism.
“We can’t hang our heads.’’’