The Bald Eagle Area boys’ basketball team knows Saturday’s opening game in the PIAA Class AA playoffs will not be easy.
In fact, the Eagles will be facing a team that will make their life so difficult, during practices this past week, some drills were 5-on-10.
“It was crazy,” junior guard Bryce Greene said. “You couldn’t move anywhere. We had to squeeze through defenses, tight holes, and hopefully Saturday’s going to be a lot easier.”
The Eagles (21-4) are going to have to play their best game of the season at 6 p.m. Saturday at North Allegheny High School when they meet Beaver Falls (23-3) to open the state playoffs.
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While BEA is making its first appearance in the state tournament since advancing to the quarterfinals in 2006, the Tigers just won their second straight District 7 title and are fueled by their faltering in the final seconds of an overtime loss in last season’s state championship game. They also are No. 1 in the state in Class AA and haven’t lost since mid-January.
Beaver Falls may have lost several key players from last season’s powerful squad, including star Sheldon Jeter heading to Vanderbilt, there is still plenty of talent to provide some intimidation.
BEA coach Bill Butterworth is hoping some recent local history will give his team a little inspiration.
“We talk about the Penn State-Michigan game and some of the big upsets in college basketball,” Butterworth said, referring to the Nittany Lions’ upset of the then-No. 4 Wolverines last week for their first Big Ten win of the season. “No. 1 is only on paper. They have (three) losses, so it’s not like they’re unbeatable. We just have to be confident. I told them, ‘If you’re getting on the bus and you don’t think you have a chance to win, there’s no sense of us wasting a bus trip out there.’”
The good news is Beaver Falls does not have anyone on its roster taller than 6-foot-3, meaning BEA will have an interior advantage with 6-7 leading scorer Dennis Fisher.
The hard part is getting the ball to Fisher.
“It’s 94 feet of in-your-face basketball,” Butterworth said. “For 32 minutes you’re going to see full-court pressure and they’re very athletic, very quick.”
Because of that, Butterworth ran those drills of 5-on-10, leaving even less space to work the ball up the court and make entry passes.
“We wanted to get the guards’ attention off of Dennis to be able to work it into him,” Butterworth said. “It’s going to be key because turnovers have to held to a minimum. They turn turnovers into two points. If you give them a steal, it’s a layup at the other end.”
Having such chaos on the court certainly left an impression on his team.
“It’s tough,” said Bryan Greene, who, along with his twin Bryce, Brandon Gettig and Jeff Bennett will have the tough task of breaking the press. “They just got in our faces and there was, like, no room to even go.”
The pressure has been so tough recently, none of the Tigers’ four opponents during the District 7 playoffs scored more than 39 points, and they beat Burrell in last Saturday’s final 61-33.
“Coach says, ’15 turnovers is going to be 30 points for them,’” Bryan Greene said. “We have to make sure our guards are confident with the ball and we don’t turn the ball over.”
For the season, Beaver Falls averaged 69 points a game and gave up 48 per night.
How much has Butterworth been stressing putting a value on the basketball?
“Two-and-a-half hours a night for the last three nights,” Butterworth said Thursday. “I stop them every time (after a mistake) and say, ‘We can’t do that, we can’t turn the ball over, we’ve got to take every possession like it’s your last possession of the year. You have to play it like we’re down two and we need that last basket. Take care of it every time. Every tripe’s got to be the same way because they’re not going to let up.’”
The Eagles had been rolling along quite well this season until their last two games, when they tripped up against Northern Cambria, then gave a less-than-their-best performance against Bishop McCort in the district consolation game.
“I don’t judge us by the last two games,” Butterworth said. “We played really bad basketball. We’re a lot better than what we played in the districts.”
It will take BEA’s best to have a chance Saturday night, but the Eagles will not be intimidated.
“If we do the fundamentals,” Bryan Greene said, “we have a pretty good shot of winning.”
“I’m pretty confident with my team,” Butterworth said. “I think we have a chance to win, and that’s all I’ve been telling them all week and I’m not going to let them think any different because it’s March madness – anything can happen.”