Section grind awaits WPIAL playoff hopefuls
A five-week grind to the end of Section 2-AAAA play awaits the Plum, Gateway and Franklin Regional boys basketball teams, and Mustangs coach Ron Richards, Gators mentor Daryn Freedman and Panthers head coach Brad Midgley know that any stretch of slip ups in the rugged section can mean doom as far as the fight for the playoffs is concerned.
The beginning of the new year provided a chance for each team to recharge batteries after the first part of the section schedule and holiday tournament action.
Plum, Franklin Regional and Gateway went a combined 5-2 in tournament games, with the Mustangs taking two in a row after a tough loss to top-ranked Latrobe in the first game of the Penn Hills County Challenge.
Gateway upended Brashear in the first game of the Gateway holiday tournament before suffering a tough 50-48 setback to Norwin in the championship game.
Franklin Regional captured the championship of the Montour tournament with a pair of strong victories over Wilkinsburg and host Montour.
The three teams entered 2016 in the top half of the section standings after four December section contests.
Franklin Regional passed four early tests with a close win at Fox Chapel, home triumphs over Armstrong and Penn Hills and a seven-point road victory at Gateway two days before Christmas.
The Panthers began the week as the lone unbeaten team in section (4-0), and they were to face a big home test Tuesday against McKeesport, which came into the game 3-1 and tied with Plum for second in the section.
All section games on Tuesday were to be contested past the deadline for this week's edition.
Franklin Regional travels to Woodland Hills on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
The Mustangs were to return to the site of their holiday tournament Tuesday and were to face a Penn Hills team that entered the week 2-2 in section with wins over Fox Chapel and Armstrong and a close 50-49 loss to Franklin Regional.
Plum hopes to keep Armstrong, which started this week 0-4 in section play, at the bottom of the section standings when the teams meet Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Plum High School.
Gateway, which also went 2-2 in December section matchups, hoped to bounce back from a two-game section losing skid (Plum and Franklin Regional) at Armstrong on Tuesday.
The Gators will match up with Fox Chapel at the home of the Foxes on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
As usual, the top four teams from the section will qualify for the WPIAL Quad-A playoffs.
Last year, Gateway dominated Brashear and won a close game against Norwin at the Gateway holiday tournament at the Furrie Sports Complex.
Last week, the Gators won a closer first-round game with the Bulls, 50-40, and let a lead slip away against the Knights in a 50-48 loss in the championship contest.
Gateway, which has enjoyed a great deal of success at its home tournament, led Norwin, 17-9, after the first quarter as a 3-pointer from Clayton Nola capped the Gators' scoring over the first eight minutes.
Sophomore forward John Paul Kromka led the Gators with seven first-quarter points. He had eight points over the rest of the game to finish with 15.
Norwin used a 12-2 run to end the first half and cut what was a 21-9 Gateway lead to 23-21 at the break.
Frank Bozicevic kept Gateway in the lead in the third quarter as he scored six straight Gators points for a 31-27 advantage with four minutes to play in the period.
Norwin, however, went on another run (11-4) to close out the third and take a 35-33 advantage.
The Knights' lead swelled to as much as seven, 45-38, with 4:02 remaining, but Gateway kept fighting back.
A Bozicevic 3-pointer and four points from Harvey Hicks trimmed the Norwin lead to 47-45 with 53 seconds to play.
Etholian Vennie canned a 3-pointer to make it 50-48 with four seconds to go.
On the inbounds play, the Gateway defense forced the Norwin ball handler to step out of bounds while trying to bring the ball up court.
The Gators had two seconds to get off a shot to tie or win the game. Bozicevic unleashed a semi-contested 3-pointer at the buzzer that was no good.
Bozicevic finished with a game-best 20 points for Gateway.
Kromka scored 13 and Vennie and Bozicevic added 10 each to lead Gateway over Brashear in the first round.
Gateway led by one point heading into the fourth quarter before outscoring Brashear, 16-7, over the final eight minutes.
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5825 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.