Homer-Center conference champion 'Cats keep rolling
It would have been easy, understandable even, for Homer-Center players to take a loss at United Tuesday night.
One day after clinching the conference title, the Wildcats were playing their second road game in as many nights and facing an 11-point deficit. In addition, with their playoff seed already determined, a win would do nothing to improve that.
Instead, the Wildcats showed the resiliency they've displayed all season, coming back from the double-digit deficit and holding off a United rally to edge the Lions, 51-47.
"The kids showed a lot of heart coming back," said Homer-Center head coach Bob Rado. "I think we were down 11, coming off a big win (Monday) night out at Northern Cambria and coming out on the road again ... these guys are resilient.
"A lot of people counted them out earlier this year, and they're proving a lot of people wrong. We might not play the prettiest basketball, but they find a way to win. That's a sign of a good basketball team when you find a win to win even though you're not playing your best basketball, and that's exactly what happened here."
And, the Wildcats (16-4, 14-1) found a way to win even when it wasn't necessary for the conference race or playoff positioning. They clinched the Heritage Conference title with Monday's win at Northern Cambria, and the District 6-A pairings were released earlier in the day, with H-C earning a No. 2 seed.
But, that didn't mean this game didn't have value.
"We didn't have the pressure on us like this game meant the Heritage Conference or anything, but I approached it as a coach as we have two more games as building blocks for the playoffs," Rado said. "We got to get the most out of these two games. I'm not just going to rest starters and do things like that."
The Wildcats will face the winner of Bishop Carroll vs. Bishop Guilfoyle in the quarterfinals either next Thursday or Friday. Last night's game against Penns Manor and the matchup with United were the Wildcats' last two chances to tune-up for the postseason.
"You have to take every game right now as a playoff game," said senior forward Craig Ciranni. "Just because we have the Heritage Conference wrapped up doesn't mean we're going to roll over. You have to get ready for the playoffs. I know we're either playing Bishop Carroll or Bishop Guilfoyle and even though they're a lower seed, they're still going to be tough. ... I think, (Tuesday) we did a good job getting ready for that and hopefully gaining something from this game that we can carry on into the playoffs."
Someone has to lose
Although they came up short against Homer-Center, the mission was the same for the Lions -- prepare for the postseason. The Lions (11-9, 8-7) face Richland in the first round of the Class AA playoffs Monday night.
Also with their playoff seed locked up, the Lions played just as hard as the Wildcats, building that 11-point lead and then almost completing a fourth-quarter comeback.
"I'm not at all disappointed in this game. I would've much rather won, but I'm happy with the effort," said United head coach Bill Clevenger, whose team faced another formidable foe in Marion Center last night. "You end up losing by four points, but it was a good game. As I told the kids down here (in the locker room) 'Two top teams this week. Approach them as a preparation for the playoffs next Monday.'"
Tuesday's finish felt like a playoff game as United began the final period down by 5, but the Lions eventually tied it at 47 with 1:51 to go after two baskets by forward Tim Ofman.
Ciranni broke the tie with 57 seconds to play when he caught an inbounds pass at the free throw line and fired a jump shot that spun around the rim several times before finally going in.
"Usually, I get a decent-looking shot from that out-of-bounds play, and as soon as I got it, I knew I was going to take the shot," said Ciranni, who registered game-highs with 20 points and 14 rebounds. "It probably went around the cylinder three times, and it finally rolled in for me. It felt good, and then I saw it rolling, and I thought 'This one's coming out,' but it fell, and it helped us along the way."
Cody Trabert came up short on a fadeaway on the Lions' trip down the court, and Ciranni grabbed the rebound. Zack Davis connected on two free throws with 26.9 seconds remaining to create the final margin.
The Lions had to try to complete the fourth-quarter comeback without their top scorer and rebounder, forward Stefan Moreau, who fouled out late in the third quarter. Moreau, who averages 16 points and 15 rebounds per game, finished Tuesday's contest with seven points and eight rebounds.
It was the first game Moreau fouled out of this season.
"I wasn't going to let him sit there the second half after he picked up the fourth foul," Clevenger said. "We're going to go with our best, and if he fouls out, he fouls out -- that's always my philosophy. I'm not going to sit a kid there for the whole half because I felt we needed him in there, and in reality, Ray Ofman came off the bench, and he played really well."
Ray Ofman finished the game with 10 points and six rebounds off the bench while Tim Ofman led the Lions with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
While the Ofmans scored all but two of United's second-half points, it was the hot shooting of Trabert that got the Lions off to a great start.
The junior guard nailed three 3-pointers and scored all 11 of his points in the first quarter as the Lions jumped out to a commanding 18-8 advantage. That lead reached its highest point early in the second after two Moreau free throws put United ahead by 11 points, 24-13.
"It was one of the few times this year we were shooting the ball well from outside," Clevenger said. "I think they were giving us that, and to these kids' credit, they made the shots."
However, that hot shooting wouldn't last, and Homer-Center began to crawl back in the second quarter. A short jumper by Ciranni with 18 seconds to go in the half brought the Wildcats' within two points, but United's Robert Bailey came through with a big response when he stole a pass at halfcourt and converted that into a three-point play as the half ended.
The Lions' 31-26 halftime lead got up to seven points early in the third quarter before the Wildcats went on a 12-0 run to take control heading into the fourth. A lot of different players got into the mix for the Wildcats during the run as only two of the points came from Ciranni.
The run was jump-started by two 3-pointers by Stephen Nymick and Matt Jones.
"They were locked up on me running a four-man zone, and I was just trying to move throughout the paint, and my teammates were getting some open looks from the perimeter and working a little inside-out game," Ciranni said. "Everybody contributed, and I thought Dylan George did a great job taking the ball to the hoop, getting his man in the air and getting some key points for us in the second half. I thought it was a total team effort once again."
George scored all six of his points in the third quarter. His first basket, a driving layup from the baseline, gave the Wildcats their first lead at 36-35 with 3:56 to play in the third.
"They couldn't miss in the first quarter, and we just had to step up our defense and just try to crawl back in it," George said. "We knew we weren't getting it all at once. We just had to keep fighting back and see what we could do."
George capped the run with a putback that gave Homer-Center a 40-35 lead. The Lions ended their scoring drought, which lasted nearly six minutes, when Ray Ofman connected on a layup with 1:07 left in the quarter.
The Wildcats were able to hold onto their lead in the fourth quarter despite shooting just 2-for-11 from the field in the final period.
On Monday against Northern Cambria, the Wildcats also had to fight off a comeback attempt. After leading by 20 points at halftime, the Wildcats saw that lead go down to three before coming away with a 53-45 win.
With that victory, Homer-Center clinched its second outright Heritage Conference title in three years to go with last season's crown that was shared with Penns Manor and Northern Cambria.
This year's team came into the season with some question marks as the Wildcats had to break in three new starters, and some inexperienced players received lots of playing time. The Wildcats just seemed to always find a way to win, and Rado attributes the success to a close-knit group of players who never cause problems for each other or coaches.
"I see unselfishness. They all pull for each other. They're all friends. There's not an ounce of friction on this team, and there's not one minor problem I've had with any of them," Rado said. "When I had these young guys my first year down in Homer City like a Dylan George and a Craig Ciranni, I moved them up as freshmen, so I got to know them for four years, and I haven't had any (problems). They don't talk negatively about their teammates; it's almost like a brotherhood. It's great to see as a coach because I can just focus on coaching.
"They're just having fun, and that's what high school basketball's all about. It's once you start getting that friction and start pointing fingers that's the problem. I have none of that, so it's very enjoyable, and we're not ready to stop."