The State College boys’ basketball team disrupted Altoona with a variety of defenses to take the Mountain Lions out of their comfort zone and feed into the Little Lions’ quick-hitting transition attack Friday night.
Once the Little Lions switched to their 3-2 and 1-3-1 zones to go with their full-court press and traps, they started to run away from Altoona in a 73-47 win in the District 6 Class 6A championship game at Tyrone High School.
State College’s length and athleticism on the defensive end created opportunities on the offensive end as the Little Lions turned an early one-point deficit into an 11-point halftime lead.
“We start flowing and we love to run, and that’s where we play best,” State College guard Keaton Ellis said.
The formula produced State College’s third straight district title and clinched a PIAA tournament berth. The Little Lions will now wait until March 11 to face the District 7 fourth-place finisher in the first round of the state tournament.
Ryan McNulty paced the Little Lions with 13 points off the bench, while Ellis and Tommy Sekunda each added 11.
McNulty provided an early spark after Altoona raced out to a 14-6 lead with 3:15 left in the first quarter. McNulty knocked down a 3-pointer immediately out of a timeout and finished a pair of layups to tie it twice late in the quarter.
His eight points helped State College close Altoona’s lead to 21-20 at the end of the first quarter. Ellis also made a steady contribution off the bench in the Little Lions’ press and transition offense.
“Ryan McNulty and Keaton Ellis are not bench players,” State College coach Joe Walker said. “They’re starters, but we have the luxury of bringing them off the bench to bring that energy.”
After allowing Altoona guard Shawn Gibson to weave through State College’s man-to-man defense for nine first-quarter points, the Little Lions switched to zone early in the second quarter.
The change neutralized Altoona big man Jayvion Queen, who had five points in the first quarter, and sparked State College’s fast break. The Little Lions opened the second quarter on an 8-0 run and gradually added to their lead.
“They got comfortable when we were playing man-to-man,” Walker said. “It wasn’t effective, so we figured we’d switch.”
Tommy Friberg provided the highlight of the period, turning a steal near half-court into a breakway dunk to make it 34-26.
“I got a lot of energy after that and I got pumped up,” Friberg said.
Drew Friberg later hit a wide-open 3 off a pass from Sekunda to push the lead to 10, and the Little Lions went into halftime ahead 40-29. State College added to its lead in the third quarter and blew the game open at the start of the fourth quarter.
Tommy Friberg led State College’s transition offense and found Ellis with a bounce pass for a layup on the team’s first possession of the period. Friberg then grabbed a loose ball for a steal off the press, and State College converted with a pair of free throws to go ahead by 17 just 53 seconds into the fourth.
The Little Lions generated easy chances at the rim throughout the night, even pushing the ball after Altoona makes and attacking when their defense led to turnovers.
“We know we have speed and we can beat the other team up the floor,” Ellis said. “And if we do, we have easy buckets.”
After capturing the Mid Penn championship and the district title, State College will continue its run in the state playoffs.
And Walker still isn’t sure what this team’s ceiling is.
“I’m happy to see how it shakes out in state playoffs,” Walker said. “I think we’re really talented and (if) we play together and play hard, play our assignments, we’re going to be tough to beat.”