Hustle helps Neshannock reach PIAA quarterfinals
Neshannock (62) Vs. Conemaugh Valley (41)
By RON PONIEWASZ JR.
PITTSBURGH — Hard work paid off Tuesday night for the Neshannock High boys basketball team.
The Lancers hustled throughout the game to whip Conemaugh Valley, 62-41, in a PIAA Class A second-round playoff matchup at North Hills High School.
Neshannock built a commanding 56-29 buffer early in the fourth period by beating Blue Jays players to loose balls, being active on defense and hitting the boards. The Lancers held a 35-33 advantage on the glass.
“Our guys really played their tails off,” Lancers coach John Corey said. “They exerted a lot of effort out there; they worked extremely hard to make it look easy.”
“That’s a very good basketball team over there (Conemaugh Valley). To build up that big of a lead, our guys did dig in and bust their tails the whole game.”
Neshannock (18-8) advances to the state quarterfinals and will meet Lincoln Park, a 69-60 victor over Southern Fulton, on Friday at a time and site to be announced. Lincoln Park beat the Lancers twice in WPIAL Section 1-A action, 69-64 and 78-62.
“Lincoln Park is a fantastic basketball team and we know that,” Corey said. “I think they’ve gotten better, but I like to think that we are better, too.
“We’re very happy to be playing on Friday. These guys get another chance to put these uniforms on again and go out and compete at a high level.”
The trip to the state quarterfinals will be Neshannock’s first since 1993.
The Blue Jays (23-4) came in as the District 6 champion, but they shot just 17 of 53 from the floor. It’s the second straight win over a district champion for the Lancers, as they ousted DuBois Central Catholic (District 9) in the first round.
“C.J. (VanEman) and Bobby (Nittinger) came up big on their top two players and stopped them,” Neshannock’s Joey Fontana said. “They couldn’t do anything against our defense.”
The teams were tied at 11 after the opening quarter and Conemaugh Valley forced six Lancers turnovers. They finished with just 12 for the game.
“I think it was more what we did early on,” Corey said of the turnovers. “They played that 3-2 zone and I just thought we were trying to force the ball into Joey Fontana.
“Of those six turnovers, I’d say half of those were just bad mistakes on our part.”
The Blue Jays opened their largest lead of the game at 16-13 before Neshannock erupted. The Lancers closed the half on a 19-4 run for a 32-20 lead at the break.
Conemaugh Valley committed six of its 13 turnovers in the second period.
“We wanted to guard Jason Preuss and Jimmy Lupek fairly tightly,” Corey said. “They are pretty good scorers. We wanted to make sure the rest of the guys were in help side. I told the guys active feet and active hands.”
Preuss notched a game-high 20 points, but his markers were spread out. He recorded seven points in the final frame when the game was out of reach. Lupek chipped in with 11.
Nittinger netted eight of his 14 points in the second quarter, burying two 3-pointers as well. He was 5 of 12 from the floor.
“He just started to feel their zone,” Corey said of Nittinger’s second-quarter success. “They really didn’t change up defensively until the end. I think Bobby just caught some spots.”
Fontana led the Lancers with 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting. He added four rebounds as well.
“Joey played another excellent game,” Corey said. “When teams go to that 3-2 zone, Joey is just so hard to guard that we like to put him in the middle of the floor and let him create a little bit.”
Said Fontana, “They were in that zone and I was just open a lot of the time. Things snowballed in the second quarter and our confidence kept rising and we took off from there.”
Conemaugh Valley’s Dalton Uncapher, a 6-foot-4 sophomore forward/center, missed the second quarter with a cut to his chin. Uncapher was whistled for a charge with 12.2 seconds left in the first quarter and he didn’t return until the third period. He busted his chin open when he hit the floor hard.
“He was a big body,” Corey said. “Not having him on the floor definitely helped us to achieve our goal of putting pressure on them.
“They brought another big kid in to take his place. It was more of an offensive thing for him, though, because he’s a good shooter.”
Neshannock scored the first five points of the second half and outscored the Blue Jays 17-5 in the third quarter.
“Coach was happy at halftime but he told us they’re usually down and make a run in the second half,” Fontana said. “He said to play harder in the second half and things will go your way.
“That early run was big in the third quarter.”
Conemaugh Valley trailed 56-29 with 6:35 left but got as close as 56-41 with 3:35 to go.
“We were getting to the rim so easily. When you’re getting to the rim that easily, it gets hard to commit to holding the basketball,” Corey said. “We did want to take some time off the clock and down the stretch we did a very good job of that.”
Blue Jays fans heckled the Neshannock bench throughout the game but it got out of control in the game’s waning moments. Police escorted two of their fans out.
“I’m fully confident that my staff and I and my kids handle ourselves in a very professional manner,” Corey said. “The things that were being yelled at us was very upsetting. I don’t pride myself or my staff in screaming into the stands, but tonight there was some things yelled that made us act out of character.
“It shouldn’t get to you, but when you care so much about these kids on your bench and they’re being name-called by 30-, 40-, 50-year-old-men, that’s a little bit troubling.”
Neshannock was 23 of 47 from the field. Eric Bruening pulled down a game-best 13 rebounds for the Lancers.