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Plum fighting to stay alive in playoff chase

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Plum's #22 Nick Stotler looks to score against Fox Chapel's #22 Matt D'Amico during the basketball game at Plum High School on Friday January 11, 2013. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

The Plum boys basketball team finds itself right in the middle of a week that could see it remain in the race for one of the four WPIAL playoff spots out of Section 2-AAAA or skid to the brink of elimination.

The Mustangs get a second crack at section leader Gateway on Friday at Plum High School, and Plum, which began the week 4-4 in section play, hopes it can break through against the Gators in what has become a close series, regardless of each team's record.

“We are still fighting for a lot in the section, and we have to beat teams like McKeesport and Gateway to get to where we want to go,” Plum head coach Ron Richards said.

Richards knows his squad can go toe-to-toe with Gateway, a belief anchored in the fact that the teams played right down to the wire in a matchup right before Christmas at Gateway's Furrie Sports Complex.

With the game tied at 36, Gateway had possession of the ball and went into a stall to drain the final few minutes off the regulation clock.

After a timeout, Gators junior Shomari Thomas got the ball at the right wing and put up a shot just inside the 3-point arc. The shot went in, and Gateway came away with a 38-36 triumph.

“If we're not at our best and not focused, we don't have a good chance to beat a team like Gateway,” Richards said.

“When we show up ready to play, we're a tough team to play against. We were able to show that against Gateway the first time.”

If Plum is seeking positive momentum, it can recall last year, when a similar situation at the end of the game at Gateway — a stall and a last-second field goal — lifted the Gators to a 3-point victory.

The rematch at Plum went the way of the Mustangs, 58-52, and the two teams finished tied for second in the section standings at 8-4.

Plum was slated to travel to McKeesport on Tuesday for a game that was to be played past the deadline for this week's edition.

The Tigers, which entered the game 6-2, saw a 10-game winning streak snapped Friday with a one-point loss against Fox Chapel. The Foxes began the week also at 6-2.

Gateway lost to McKeesport, 42-40, on Jan. 15 but bounced back and throttled Penn Hills, 92-56, three days later. The Gators were 7-1 at the beginning of the week.

Plum stood at 2-4 after a 55-48 loss to Fox Chapel at home on Jan. 11, but wins against Franklin Regional, 57-33, and Woodland Hills, 37-34, brought the Mustangs back to .500.

Through 15 games, Plum allowed an average of only 41.8 points per game, one of the best defensive marks in all of the WPIAL.

“We've been pretty consistent defensively,” Richards said. “We've always emphasized a team-defense mentality. (Senior) Andrew Dawson is one of the better on-the-ball defenders around. It starts there. We have a shot blocker inside in (junior) Austin Dedert, and in high school basketball, that's a pretty good set up defensively.

“That's the way we can stay in games and win games because we haven't been where we need to be offensively.”

Through the same 15 games, Plum averaged 49.1 points, and senior Nick Stotler remained on fire in January. He averaged 18.5 points per game through the first six January contests, and he tallied 25 of Plum's 37 points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, against Woodland Hills on Friday.

“We were hoping not to have to count on someone scoring 70 percent of our points in a game, but the defense really held them down, and Nick bailed us out,” Richards said.

“We had some guys who struggled offensively that night. Everyone shot the ball well against Franklin Regional. The same guys had the same looks against Woodland Hills, but the ball just didn't go in. We run a motion offense, and it's not run to set up any one person. All the shots come within the framework of the offense. Nick just took good shots when he got the ball.”

Stotler added 24 and 25 points in a pair of tournament games over the Christmas break.

“He's a good scorer because he's a good athlete, and he's strong,” Richards said. “He can shoot it and get to the rim. It's what we expected out of him at the beginning of the season. We thought he had the ability to score — but not exactly at 23 or 24 points per game.”

Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5825 or at mlove@tribweb.com.

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