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Apollo-Ridge hangs on for victory over Neshannock

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Apollo Ridge's Alex Smith (center) goes up between Neshannock defenders (from left) Tyler Haswell, Matt Smeltzer and Ethan Moose to get a pass off to an open teammate during playoff action at Highlands High School on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch

The Apollo-Ridge boys basketball team was cruising along, leading Neshannock by 15 with 1:44 left in the third period.

But the Vikings had to hold off a furious Lancers rally in the last four minutes of play to escape with a 66-64 victory in a WPIAL Class AA preliminary-round game.

A 3-point try by Neshannock's Ernie Burkes at the buzzer fell short, and Apollo-Ridge (16-7) moved on to play fifth-seeded Sto-Rox on Wednesday at a time and site to be determined.

The win at Highlands High School was the first Apollo-Ridge playoff victory in 10 years.

“This group of kids has worked so hard,” Vikings coach Matt Gourley said. “They were a great team that fought back, and fortunately, we were able to hold on.”

The Vikings led, 56-41, on a basket by Lucas Burrell off an offensive rebound. Apollo-Ridge committed just one turnover in the third period.

Apollo-Ridge was in front, 61-52, with 4:07 left in the fourth quarter only to see that advantage evaporate.

Burkes' sixth 3-pointer of the game with 2:39 remaining sliced the Vikings' lead to 63-59.

With 1:12 to go, Matt McKinney converted a Jim Madure steal to bring Neshannock to within 63-61 before Apollo-Ridge sophomore Tre' Tipton answered with a basket at the 50-second mark.

A 3-pointer by freshman Ethan Moose cut the Vikings' lead to 65-64. On the ensuing inbounds play, the ball went off the foot of a Vikings player and Neshannock had a chance to take the lead for the first time since early in the second quarter.

Burrell stole the ball, and Vikings guard Josh Reynolds was fouled. He hit 1 of 2 from the line to make it 66-64.

Neshannock (17-6) called timeout after Apollo-Ridge's fifth team foul to set up Burkes with the final shot.“We got a clean look, the guys executed that play to perfection, we got the ball into the hands of the guy we wanted to, but it didn't go in,” Lancers coach John Corey said.

“We had to keep track of 23 (Burkes) for the last shot,” Gourley said. “We were switching off screens and he got the shot away, but it was a contested shot.”

Apollo-Ridge, which scored the game's first seven points and led by nine twice in the first quarter, was on top, 23-20, as the second quarter began.

The Vikings collected 14 offensive rebounds in the first half and forced eight Neshannock turnovers in the first quarter. The Lancers turned the ball over on each of their first three possessions.

“It was big to get out to that lead early,” Gourley said. “When we've had success this year, we've done that.

“Putting ourself in that situation, we didn't do our job, obviously, coming out of the gate,” Corey said. “They worked hard and found a way.”

Burkes, a junior, had 28 points to lead Neshannock. Burrell led five Apollo-Ridge players in double figures with 18 points.

Gourley praised the work of senior Connor Billingsley, who came off the bench to score 12 points, all in the first three quarters.

Neshannock was assessed a technical foul late in the first quarter when freshman reserve Frank Frashetti's name wasn't entered into the scorebook when he came on the floor.

Apollo-Ridge converted one of two foul shots on the technical.

George Guido is a freelance writer.

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