TYRONE — Penns Valley coach Terry Glunt preached about respect to his basketball team before its District 6 first-round matchup against Cambria Heights.
Glunt knew the Rams were in for a battle despite their 19-point victory over the Highlanders during the regular season. And if his players didn’t come out ready to play, they’d be in trouble.
Penns Valley got the hard-fought game Glunt expected, and the fourth-seeded Rams survived with a 44-40 win over No. 13 Cambria Heights in a Class AA opener at Tyrone on Monday night. The Rams (18-4) were in control for much of the night, but the Highlanders (8-15) kept it close down to the final minute.
“If this was a wakeup call, it was a wakeup call,” Glunt said. “I just consider it a good district win. I don’t think anybody in this tournament is a walkover. I didn’t expect Cambria Heights to lay down for us tonight.”
In the end, Glunt said, his team did what it needed to do to get the win and advance to face fifth-seeded Blairsville, which beat Juniata 69-43, at a site and time to be determined.
Luke Weaver and Will Jackson each scored 10 points to lead a balanced effort. Zach Engle finished with eight, and Cameron Tobias added seven for the Rams.
Penns Valley came out strong, taking a 6-0 lead behind its defense in the opening minutes before Cambria Heights answered to end the first quarter tied at 9.
Any thoughts of another Rams blowout were gone.
“The last time we played them we kind of took care of business pretty early,” Weaver said. “But playoff basketball, they’re gonna fight back. They don’t want to go home, just like us.”
Weaver spearheaded an 11-0 run by the Rams in the second quarter to open up a 22-11 lead.
The senior finished a drive off the glass, drilled a 3-pointer and found teammate Ben Alexander for a layup after grabbing an offensive rebound to cap the run with just more than two minutes left in the half.
But as they would all night, the Highlanders responded. Cambria Heights cut the Penns Valley lead to eight with 1:12 left in the half and went into halftime down 24-19 after Josh Serafin hit a 3-pointer off one foot at the buzzer.
The Highlanders kept the momentum out of the break and took a 25-24 lead with just more than five minutes left in the third after 3-pointers by Nathan Patrick and Serafin.
“That was probably coaching because I came out in a zone and they hit a couple threes and we didn’t play any zone the remainder of the half so that one’s on me,” Glunt said. “If we’re playing our typical man defense, in your face, they’re not gonna get those open looks, and they have some good shooters.”
Penns Valley ended Cambria Heights’ run and retook control on the ensuing possession.
The Rams found Tobias open at the top of the key, and he nailed the 3-pointer, pushing his team back ahead 27-25.
“We’ve gotten down before in the season, so I wasn’t too panicked and I wasn’t too worried,” Tobias said. “And I knew we always play as a team, so nothing was really in my mind other than getting the job done and pulling out the win.”
Glunt called a time out after the shot with 4:57 remaining in the quarter. Penns Valley expanded its lead to 31-25 on a breakaway layup by Jackson and led 35-28 heading into the fourth quarter.
The strong finish to the quarter, in which the Rams allowed just one more 3-pointer, started with Tobias’ shot.
“It was so important that he answered like that,” Weaver said. “That was a great shot. Coming out, oh man, they were just shooting really good. They got some real good shooters.”
Even with a seven-point cushion, the fourth quarter was anything but easy for the Rams.
The Highlanders scored the first four points to trim Penns Valley’s lead to 35-32. They remained within four points with fewer than three minutes to go, challenging every Penns Valley shot attempt and sending the Rams to the line.
The Rams scored all nine of their points in the fourth quarter at the foul line, going 9 for 15 to hold on for the win.
“Real good teams, they’ve got to be good foul-shooting teams,” Weaver said. “We have been throughout the year been a little inconsistent, and throughout the playoffs, you’ve really got to make them and we did for the most part tonight.”