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East boys squad grabs tight Cager Classic victory

| Saturday, March 25, 2017, 11:33 p.m.

Early in the first half of the Cager Classic boys All-Star game, East coach Joey Tutchstone turned to his assistants and exclaimed, "Boy, we're playing some defense tonight!"

Leave it to Tutchstone, whose Kiski Area teams play a decidedly rugged brand of basketball, to get excited about defense in an All-Star game. Still, he wasn't wrong: Plays on both ends of the court in a wild final few minutes helped the East come away with a 99-94 victory in the 21st annual Cager Classic on Saturday night at Highlands.

After the East held as much as a 13-point advantage, the teams traded leads four times in a 60-second span with under five minutes remaining. But after Leechburg's J.B. Burtick gave the East the lead for good at 86-84, a steal by Riverview's Nico Sero and some clutch layups by Fox Chapel's Jake Livingston preserved the win.

"It was coming down to the end, but we kept pushing," said Plum's Kevin Brown, named the East MVP after scoring 11 points and adding nine assists. "It seemed like they would go on a little run, and we'd just come back and push the lead up."

The Cager, which recognizes seniors from the Alle-Kiski Valley and surrounding areas, lived up to its usual high-scoring format, even though neither team reached 100 points — the first time that happened since 2013.

The teams combined for 23 3-pointers, including four by the West's Antonio Ionadi (Hampton) and three apiece by the West's Ben Huber (Hampton) and the East's Michael Spera (West Shamokin). The West's Ben Pollock, a 6-foot-10 center, banked in a 3 of his own in the first half.

Even Tutchstone got into the offensive mindset late in the second half, imploring Brown to go for the 100-point mark in the final seconds. Brown was fouled and split a pair of free throws, leaving the East with 99.

"I definitely wanted to get that 100," Tutchstone said. "I thought we were going to get it.

"Late in the second half, it really got exciting to watch. They really started competing 110 percent. That was good to see. That was exciting to see."

Notable defensive plays almost matched the offensive fireworks. Sero went crashing into the scorer's table while deflecting a pass, forcing a West turnover, and players like Pollock for the West and Valley's Justice Ray came through with chasedown blocks.

Ray had 11 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks for the West. Brown collected four steals and Sero three. Pollock and Highlands' Brayden Thimons each blocked two shots for the West, and Ionadi came away with four steals.

"It was high-scoring, but I at least thought there was pretty good defense played," said Ionadi, the West team MVP. "But it was still very fast and very fun. The coaches, they just let us play. It was a good experience.

"I think neither team wanted to lose, but unfortunately they made a few more plays. They played really well. They deserved to win. But it was definitely a very competitive All-Star game."

The East players came into the game with an underdog mentality, believing the West was overlooking them. After the teams traded leads early, the East took control, leading by as many as 13 points in the first half and by nine at halftime.

"I heard the other team was saying that they were going to blow us out, so we had to come out and show them that we weren't going to let that happen," Brown said.

The West kept chipping away and finally took its first lead since the first half when Mitch DeZort (Highlands) converted a layup with less than five minutes remaining. The East retook the lead when Burrell's Max Garda hit a runner; the West grabbed it back on Ionadi's layup, but Burtick answered with his 3.

Livingston scored 10 of his game-high 18 points in the second half, with most coming in the final two minutes.

"Kevin Brown did a great job getting me the rock, and so did (Fox Chapel's) Mike Snowball," Livingston said. "As a team, I just think we played harder and got the W."

Six players scored in double figures for the East: Livingston with 18, Garda with 12, Sero, Brown and Ray with 11 and Snowball with 10. Ionadi led the West with 16, followed by DeZort and Pollock with 12, Huber with 11 and Thimons with 10. Pollock added 13 rebounds.

The Cager represented the last high school basketball game for some, while others will play in April's Roundball Classic before heading off to play in college. For some who won't play at the next level, Saturday put a bow on their competitive careers.

"It was fun. I wish we would have won, but it happens," said Pollock, who will play at Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio). "I've got the Roundball to look forward to, and then that's it. It's sad — bittersweet, I guess."

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

Erica Dietz | For the Tribune Review
Cager East’s #22 Max Garda runs the ball past Cager West’s #30 Mitch DeZort during the Cager Classic at Highlands High School on Saturday, March 25, 2017.
Erica Dietz | For the Tribune Review
Cager West’s #34 Austin Hannes drives past Cager East’s #24 Nico Sero during the Cager Classic at Highlands High School on Saturday, March 25, 2017.
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