Bobcats wilt under H-C's pressure

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

For a quarter and a half Tuesday at the Homer Dome, the Blairsville Bobcats kept the pressure on the Heritage Conference-leading Homer-Center Wildcats. By the end of the second quarter, the Bobcats had all but succumbed to the Wildcats' own brand of pressure.

The Wildcats improved to 15-4 overall and 12-2 in the conference with a 69-51 victory over Blairsville, as both teams approach the final week of the regular season and eye District 6 playoff runs.

In their remaining conference games, each team will know a different kind of pressure. The Bobcats have been long out of the conference title hunt, but look to their remaining games against Ligonier Valley and Marion Center as a chance to regain momentum heading into the playoffs. The Wildcats, though, have all the motivation they need as they try to clinch the conference title. Their remaining three games include a big showdown Tuesday at Northern Cambria that could decide it all.

“Destiny is on our shoulders,” said Homer-Center coach Bob Rado. “The kids know it.”

That might explain the Wildcats' 15-4 second-quarter run that resulted in a 37-27 Homer-Center lead at halftime.

Blairsville (9-11, 7-7), which lost to Homer-Center by 14 points after leading by 19 in their first matchup, got another taste of the Wildcats' game-changing ability late in the first quarter. Homer-Center erased a 12-11 Blairsville lead with a 7-0 run, but the Bobcats broke the press early in the second quarter and found senior forward Eric Helm in the corner for a trio of 3-pointers. A pair of free throws by Colton McMillan gave the Bobcats their final lead of the game, 22-21, with 3:57 remaining in the first half.

From there, it was all Homer-Center.

“What really helped us out was our bench,” said Rado. “It created a lot of energy on the floor. We just started moving people in and out, trying to keep them fresh. They really created a lot of havoc with their guards. We didn't want to give them any good looks coming down the court and getting the ball to (Troy) Williams, who could hurt us.”

Five Wildcats scored in the last four minutes of the half, led by Joey Capitosti's four points, while the Bobcats stumbled in to intermission with seven second-quarter turnovers.

“We were trying to flash people in the middle and we got caught a lot on the sidelines” said Blairsville coach Todd McGee. “Once we got caught up the sidelines past the midcourt line, we turned it over a lot. We like to try to keep it in the middle when we're breaking presses and that's our game plan, to keep it in the middle.

“In the second half, we tried to flash different forwards more in the middle and have a guard shoot up the other sideline,” McGee added.

Homer-Center presented a counter to that press-breaker strategy as well.

“We ran two different presses,” said Rado. “One press, we wanted to force them out of the middle and down the sidelines. The other press, we wanted to take away that middle. We tried to cheat a little bit to the middle and take that away from them.”

The Wildcats' second-quarter scoring frenzy was interrupted only by a pair of layups by Blairsville's Williams. But the tempo for the remainder of the game had been set.

“I had a choice,” said Rado. “We could keep going with what got us that lead in the second quarter or go with what we started the game with. It wasn't as aggressive. We decided at halftime to stay aggressive. It's been our game all year. We can't slow down. Even at the end, we tried to run some time off the clock and it was like holding back a racehorse.”

So there was no let-up in the Wildcats to open the second half and they quickly stretched their lead to 44-27. The Homer-Center press produced five more Blairsville turnovers in the third quarter and the Wildcats reached their biggest lead, 59-37, by early in the fourth quarter. The Bobcats never got closer than 14 points thereafter.

Capitosti led Homer-Center with a game-high 25 points. Blairsville had a difficult time stopping his penetration and his ability to pull up in the paint for a short jumper. Robert Della-Penna spearheaded the press and produced no fewer than three steals deep in Blairsville's backcourt. He scored 11 points while Matt Jones added 10.

The press also prevented Blairsville from taking advantage of its size in the post.

“Once we got across half court, we had a forward up top working elbow to elbow and we're splitting the top because they had that three-guard front ,” said McGee. “We had a guy running the baseline and then we had Troy trying to go block to block, short corner to short corner, trying to get the ball to the inside.”

Williams, a 6-foot-3 sophomore who entered the game averaging 19.3 points per game, managed to score 15 points in spite of the Wildcats' defensive focus. In fact, 37 of Blairsville's points came from their bigs, including Chris Sisitki (13 points) and Helm – although all of Helm's points came from 3-point territory. Other outside shooters didn't fare as well. McMillan, who averaged 14.3 points per game coming in, was held to just seven.

John B. Smathers is a freelance writer.

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