WINGATE — As the end of a frustrating regular season neared, the State College boys’ basketball team needed to make a decision.
So, Little Lions coach Drew Frank gathered his team in its gym before its final games to weigh its postseason options. State College could pack it in and remember a year defined by losing. Or the Little Lions could enter the district tournament and try to erase the disappointment of the regular season.
Frank’s players didn’t need to give it much thought.
“When we sat down and asked about postseason, they didn’t hesitate,” Frank said. “They said, ‘Coach, we want to go. But we’re going to win this thing. We’re not just going for the sake of going.’”
Frank proudly reflected on that moment after State College’s 49-44 win over top-seeded Mifflin County in the District 6 Class AAAA semifinals at Bald Eagle Area High School on Monday night.
The Little Lions (4-20) have now matched their regular-season win total with two straight wins to advance to the championship game, where they will face second-seeded Altoona at St. Francis University on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. Altoona beat Central Mountain 52-42 on Monday night.
State College continued its improbable run behind 10 3-pointers and a big first quarter against the Huskies (11-12). Tyler Hall knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 16 points to lead the Little Lions. Michael Beattie hit three 3-pointers and finished with 12 points, and Lucas Cooper drilled three 3s and had 11 points.
Hall and Cooper combined for three 3s in the first quarter to help the Little Lions take a 17-4 lead. It was State College’s second straight hot start after the Little Lions rode a 24-9 advantage after the first quarter to its play-in game win over Hollidaysburg.
“We told the guys at the beginning of the game, the first quarter’s as much important as the last quarter,” Beattie said. “The way you play the first quarter, that’s how you play the rest of the game. That’s exactly what we did on Saturday and that’s exactly what we did today, and it definitely helped.”
State College led 23-4 after a 3 by Hall early in the second quarter and took a 27-13 lead into halftime.
The Huskies mounted a comeback with their trapping zone defense in the second half, cutting the Little Lions’ advantage to 36-28 heading into the fourth quarter.
But each time Mifflin County inched closer, State College drilled one of their big 3-pointers.
Cooper hit from beyond the arc to push the Little Lions ahead 39-32 with more than six minutes to play. Hall then hit his fourth and final 3 to give State College a 42-34 lead. And Hall found Beattie in the right corner for another 3, this time making it 45-34 with more than four minutes to play.
“Three-pointers are one of our strong suits for a couple of our guys,” Beattie said. “And it’s definitely a big momentum change when you hit one of those because it definitely gave us a lot more confidence going into our defense.”
Still, Mifflin County made one final charge in the final minutes.
The Huskies fed Hunter Wright, who scored nine of his team-high 14 points in the fourth. State College missed two free throws with a chance to expand the lead in the final two minutes, and Jack Packer’s 3-pointer in the final minute brought Mifflin County within 45-42.
But Hall calmly knocked down four straight free throws to seal State College’s spot in the championship game. Hall was mobbed after the game by his teammates, who were soaking in another memorable moment in an unlikely postseason run.
“That felt good,” Hall said. “I got a couple hits to the face, but it was worth it.”
The decision to play in the district tournament has been worth it for the Little Lions.
Frank recalled all the pain and frustration of the regular season and said the players never lost faith in themselves or the program.
And now, they’ve been rewarded after a pair of postseason wins.
“Sometimes it truly makes me tear up to see how they’ve conducted themselves,” Frank said. “They were not going to allow our regular season to define who they are or what they are as individuals. So I talked to them a little bit before we entered the postseason, ‘You get this done and this is what you remember for the rest of your lives.’
“All the hurt and the pain of the regular season will be washed away by what they are slowly accomplishing here in the postseason.”