Homer-Center's Heritage hopes dwindle with loss to Northern Cambria
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Homer-Center's boys' basketball team had the opportunity to clinch a Heritage Conference title in its final regular-season game.
All the Wildcats needed to do was come away with a win over Northern Cambria in front of the Colts' raucous home crowd Tuesday night at Ted Keenan Memorial Gym.
A second-quarter swoon during which the Wildcats went nearly seven minutes without a bucket all but ended any chance of the conference crown being locked up early.
The Colts, fighting to preserve their own chance at repeating as conference champs, dominated the second and third quarters and held off Homer-Center's fourth-quarter flourish to prevail 60-49.
“These kids were playing with such enthusiasm and such a flow, and the crowd was behind them,” said Northern Cambria coach Dan Weber. “You just saw a team that was hungry to do what we did last year. It happened at the right time tonight.”
“It was win-or-go-home for the conference and we definitely didn't want to lose that opportunity,” Colts' senior forward Jeff Hogan added. “We had to do our best to put ourselves in the best situation to win the Heritage. I think we did that tonight.”
The loss knocked Homer-Center (17-5 overall, 13-3 Heritage Conference) out of the top spot in the conference standings, leaving Northern Cambria (16-4, 12-2) and Marion Center (14-6, 12-2) in a tie for first place. The Wildcats will now turn their attention toward the District 6 Class A playoffs, in which they are seeded third and will face No. 6 Williamsburg in the opening round.
“It's a heartbreak for them because they knew their destiny was in their hands with the Heritage Conference,” Homer-Center coach Bob Rado said. “But that's one feather in your cap, and we're not going to get it, but the season's not over. We're not sitting in the locker room saying, ‘What if? What if?' It's over. We have to prepare ourselves for a very good Williamsburg team. We saw them on film for a little bit and they're a very good basketball team.”
The Colts started the second quarter on an 18-0 run, flipping a 15-9 deficit into a 12-point lead before heading to halftime with a 27-20 edge.
“We went flat the second quarter,” said Rado. “You take that quarter away and we have a better game. Unfortunately they forced us into some errors we don't make usually. Hand it to them, they have a good team, they have good chemistry on that team. We got down big, and I credit our guys to come back the way they did. We didn't have a choice but to throw everything we had at the end. I just wish we had the sense of urgency, like we did at the end, the whole game.”
The Wildcats' second-quarter slump coincided with a shift in tactics from Northern Cambria, according to Weber.
“We decided to structure our defense and just play a half-court zone at that time,” Weber said. “I thought that limited Homer-Center's transition game. We were able to contest 3-point shots and they didn't get many second-chance opportunities. And then against their half-court defense, I thought (senior forward Jeff) Hogan had a great second quarter and Josh Bonatesta shot the ball well. Our jump shots weren't as many, but they were timely at times. We hit a few timely 3-pointers that seemed to boost our lead when we needed it.”
Northern Cambria started the second half with a 19-5 flurry and led by as many as 23 early in the fourth quarter.
“It was a little bit of a snowball effect,” Hogan said of the Colts' offensive roll in the middle quarters. “We came out and made a couple shots and then the intensity really picked up and started getting bigger and bigger. We made a couple huge shots and we just kept rolling.”
Bonatesta scored 14 of his game-high 21 points in the second and third quarters, while the 6-foot-3 Hogan added 12 during that stretch.
“We had to cover Hogan low, but then on the other hand we had to go out on the wings and cover their shooters. Sometimes when you have both a perimeter game and an inside game, it's tough. I thought the first quarter especially the type of defense we had, we sort of contained Hogan. After that when we had to come out and try to pressure their guards and look to trap their guards that left some openings and cracks in there for Hogan to exploit and that's what he did.”
Bonatesta did much of his damage from the corners –finishing the game with three 3-pointers – but was equally effective running the baseline in the Colts' half-court offense to get open layup opportunities.
Hogan exhibited a polished all-around offensive game, beating defenders to the rim off the dribble and showing good moves in the low-post as he totaled 19 points. He also flashed his defensive prowess as he finished with a triple-double, notching 10 steals and 10 rebounds and adding five blocks.
“I thought, to be honest, all five of our guys played a very unselfish basketball game,” Northern Cambria coach Dan Weber said. “I thought we protected it, we valued the basketball. Hogan did take charge and there were a couple opportunities where he was able to get his guy out on the perimeter and beat him off the dribble, we worked a little bit on that.”
Joey Capitosti led Homer-Center with 16 points and Isiah Carr had 12. Adam Polites joined Bonatesta and Hogan in double figures with 14 points for Northern Cambria.
Turnovers and a lack of second-chance opportunities hampered the Wildcats until their late-fourth-quarter flurry.
“I don't think it was a matter of what they did to us, it was a matter of what we did to ourselves,” Rado said. “There were countless times we threw the ball out of bounds without even being forced. They were unforced turnovers, and I think that shot us in the foot. ...It was a matter of us basically forcing things that weren't there. We weren't patient enough on offense.”
Homer-Center shifted into a desperation press in the final period in an attempt to get back into the game.
“It's funny, because the last time we played them, at home, they ate (our press) alive,” Rado said. “That's why I didn't want to start out in that. We wanted to give them like tandem pressure about three-quarter court and then drop, just to have some resistance. We tried down in Homer City to run that full-court trap press — they had layup after layup after layup.”
“...Tonight, we just said ‘We've got to go after them, forget the fouls, forget everything, just go after them,'” Rado added. “I think they did that and I thought the backcourt pressure in the end really forced them to hurry up a little bit.”
The Wildcats had nine steals in the fourth quarter and outscored Northern Cambria 22-10 over the final 5:52.
Northern Cambria's senior Nick Lee was a force on the glass, using all of his 5-11 frame to haul in a game-high 13 rebounds.
“The message from the beginning was very clear,” Weber said. “We had to be more physical than this team. Homer-Center starts four guards and our message and our attack-mode was ‘Jeff Hogan and Nick Lee need to assert their physical presence.'”
“Nick jumps out of the gym,” Hogan said of Lee. “He's always been like that and it's a big asset to our team having him for rebounds.”
Northern Cambria could face a de facto title game tonight at Marion Center, depending on results of last night's games which were unavailable at press time.
Homer-Center's slim shot at a share of the conference title relies on Thursday-night losses by both Northern Cambria and Marion Center and a Stingers' win tonight.
The Colts are the District 6 Class AA tournament's No. 5 seed while the Stingers are seeded eighth in that bracket.
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Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or email@example.com.
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