ALTOONA — When the District 6 Class AA basketball tournament began, Bald Eagle Area players had visions of lifting the championship trophy.
Now, after falling 53-52 to Central on Wednesday, the Eagles (19-5) will have to settle for a consolation prize — a third-place game against rival Penns Valley on Friday night. The winner will face the WPIAL runners-up at a site to be determined in the first round of the PIAA Championships.
“We’ll see what happens,” BEA coach Bill Butterworth said. “I think we’re a good team. I told them in (the locker room), ‘Last year when we lost the air went out of the balloon and we quit playing.’ We’ve got one more district game and then we go wherever. … I’ve got to keep them focused. We have two games left. We’re in the state playoffs. We can’t win the district title. We still have a chance, by far a long shot to win (states), but you still have to play the games and see what happens.”
In the end, a Jason Jones 3-pointer that could’ve tied the game missed its mark before Bryce Greene brought the Eagles within one with a put-back from the paint. But the three remaining seconds expired to send Central to a championship showdown with Richland.
Butterworth said he was proud of his players for closing a 10-point gap in the closing minutes. But under a different set of circumstances there might not have been a gap to close.
BEA, which turned a miserable start into a gutsy finish and win over Bishop McCort in the first round at Hollidaysburg on Friday, didn’t wait around to get its game going against the Dragons.
After shooting just under 50 percent in the first half and nailing five 3-pointers — three from Brandon Gettig — the Eagles strutted into their locker room with a 23-17 lead. It didn’t take long for that lead to slip away.
BEA managed just four third-quarter points, all of them coming from the foul line and off the hands of Bryan Greene. Meanwhile, Central mounted a heavy offensive and forced the aggressive BEA defense to play on its heels. The Dragons got points from six different players in the third while Alex Lafferty strung together back-to-back 3-pointers to help his team seize control.
After three quarters, Central had built a 36-27 lead.
Shortly after his team’s loss to the Dragons (17-7), Butterworth emerged from the team’s locker room still trying to determine what dogged his squad in the second half against Central.
“We were deer in the headlights,” Butterworth said. “I think we came out too relaxed. I don’t know if we thought we could run 16 minutes off the clock and have them not shoot the ball or what happened there. We started backing off on defense and not being intense. We left guys open and they were making shots. I’m baffled by the way we played.”
BEA maintained a casual pace nearly six minutes into the fourth before Eagle shooters started pressing. Gettig hit a three with two minutes to go before Jones came off the bench and hit another to pull BEA within seven. Bryce Greene took advantage of a Central turnover and transitioned to the basket where he took a hard foul from Lucas Patterson. Greene drilled both of his free throws to cut Central’s lead to five.
After Central’s Zach Slegenweit missed his second of two free throws, BEA pulled within four when Bryan Greene drove for a layup But Patterson made up for his earlier gaffe with a layup the other way. Gettig answered on the other end with a short jumper and Central called timeout up 51-47.
A wild sequence followed when BEA’s defense stymied Cunningham at half court. The Eagles stole the ball but the ensuing long pass was picked off by Cunningham who was fouled and hit both of his free throws. With 16 seconds left, Gettig drove the lane, made a layup and was fouled. He sank his free throw to cut it to a one-possession game.
A turnover on the inbounds play set the Eagles up with just over six seconds, but Jones’ three wouldn’t fall and time expired after Bryce Greene’s put back.
“That last 30 seconds, that’s us,” Butterworth said. “If we do that the entire game we win by 10 and not taking anything away from Central. They played a hell of a game tonight. They did what they had to do to beat us. … We were a step behind in the third quarter. You can’t do that in a big playoff game. You cannot go out there and score four points and expect to win basketball games. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to win playing like that in the third quarter.”