Neshannock boys hold off Union
Union (67) Vs. Neshannock (77)
By JOE SAGER
The race for the WPIAL Section 1-A boys basketball championship should be exciting.
Saturday night, Neshannock and Union gave fans a sampling of what to expect as the Lancers held on for a 75-67 triumph to claim the championship of their Early Bird tournament.
It was Neshannock’s second-straight win under new head coach John Corey and his assistants, Greg Scott and former Union standout Craig Hannon. The Lancers improved their play from Friday’s 50-44 triumph over West Middlesex.
“That first game is always a struggle. You’re trying to figure everything out offensively and defensively,” Corey said. “We had a great film session and walkthrough (Saturday) morning. We learned a lot and I think everybody was comfortable with what we were asking them to do. We changed just a couple things offensively and, defensively, we just tried to refocus on what we’re asking them to do.”
Even though Saturday night’s game was just the second of the season for both squads, it played out like a championship bout with a playoff environment at the Neshannock gym.
“It was a great atmosphere. The fans were going crazy. Putting that much pressure on us early will definitely help us down the stretch,” Corey said. “The thing is, this can’t be the highlight. We have to keep getting better every day. We have to stay focused and progress every time we are in the gym together.”
Tony Kirkwood continued to make progress for the Lancers. He erupted for a career-high 40 points against the Scotties.
“When you are in a zone, you are in a zone and he was,” Union coach Dave Smialowski said. “The thing was, they stepped up and hit their free throws — they shot a ton of them.”
The Lancers converted 32 of 45 shots from the foul line, with Kirkwood finishing with a 16-for-22 effort from the charity stripe en route to claiming tournament MVP honors.
“He had an unbelievable game. He is a heck of a guard,” Corey said. “He works real hard in the offseason; he is the guy you have to kick out of the gym. He is the first one here and the last one to leave. He does a great job for us. He plays so hard. When he is on fire and bringing that intensity, he is pretty hard to stop.”
Neshannock (2-0) was pretty hard to stop in the first two minutes as the Lancers stormed to a 10-0 lead before the Scotties could generate any offense.
“We started on fire. We talked about that in the locker room before the game. We wanted to come out and play hard for 32 minutes. We knew it was going to be a war,” Corey said. “Obviously, Union is a very successful program and they played extremely hard and they are very well coached. We knew that going into the game and we just tried to prepare our guys the best we could.”
The Scotties (1-1) spent the rest of the game cutting into the Neshannock lead. They trimmed it from six points (22-16) at the end of the first quarter to 40-36 at halftime and 52-48 heading into the fourth. Union got within a point, 62-61, with 3:31 to play on a Devonta Thomas hoop, but could not overcome the Lancers.
“I thought if we could have tied it or got the lead, we could have brought it out a little bit and let them chase us. We just couldn’t get over that hump,” Smialowski said. “We expended a lot of energy coming back and we expected them to come out strong since they were on their home floor in a championship game.”
All-tournament selection Bobby Nittinger and Eric Bruening both had nine points for Neshannock.
Anthony Thomas and Jason Burkes both paced Union with 19 points and earned all-tournament honors. Nick DeCesare had 11 points, while Matt Ault contributed 10.
The two squads don’t meet again until a Jan. 13 section battle.
“We’ll learn from this. We played hard and so did Neshannock. They played a wonderful game. This builds character. We’ll be fine,” Smialowski said. “I don’t like to lose, but if we’re going to lose one, let’s lose this one because we have two section games to come and I am sure they are going to be as fun as this one.”