HOLLIDAYSBURG — One last hustle play sealed the deal for Penns Valley.
The Rams were clinging to a one-point lead as Blairsville turned upcourt hoping to get off one final shot in the final 3.8 seconds left. And Penns Valley senior Will Jackson ensured that didn’t happen, getting his hand on the ball in the backcourt and falling on it until the final buzzer.
Jackson gripped the ball tightly, while his teammates began to celebrate the fourth-seeded Rams’ 34-33 victory over No. 5 Blairsville (19-4) in the District 6 Class AA playoffs at Hollidaysburg Senior High School on Friday night. Penns Valley (19-4) advances to the semifinals to face top-seeded Richland, which beat West Branch 73-59, at a site and time to be determined.
“That’s the kind of play we get from the kids,” Penns Valley coach Terry Glunt said of their hustle. “They know it starts with our defense and being disciplined and taking care of the ball and I thought for the most part we did that.”
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Jackson and Zach Engle each scored eight points to lead Penns Valley. Luke Weaver added five and Cameron Tobias and Ben Alexander each had four for the Rams. Engle also came through with a crucial block and the final defensive rebound in the final seconds to help Penns Valley hang on for the win.
“It feels great to be able to contribute to the team at a time of need and when we need to work hard, especially defensively,” Engle said.
The Rams used its defense to jump out to a 10-2 lead after the first quarter and an 18-5 advantage with just more than three minutes to go in the first half.
The Bobcats struggled to get going with Rams guard Dalton Ulmanic pressuring their backcourt relentlessly and Jackson keeping leading scorer Troy Williams in check. But Blairsville closed the half strong to cut Penns Valley’s lead to 18-11.
“I just think they’re too good a team to be down 18-5, but I’m gonna give my guys credit initially for that incredible defense to be suffocating and to be up 18-5,” Glunt said. “I also want to give Blairsville credit for having the wherewithal to come back and hit some good shots and play some good defense in the second half.
“I think it’s two evenly matched teams — I mean we were 4 and 5 seeds — and their athleticism was tough to deal with, but I’m just proud of the way my kids dealt with it.”
Blairsville made life hard for Penns Valley in the second half, pressuring the Rams into turnovers to continue to close the gap.
With less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Bobcats pulled even at 25 on a 3-pointer by Jaylin Rydbom. The Blairsville bench erupted. The Bobcats were now playing with confidence and momentum on their side.
The teams went into the fourth quarter tied at 25, and they remained deadlocked at 27 through the first 2:30 of the period.
That’s when Penns Valley finally found a spark.
Ulmanic poked a ball free in the backcourt, sending it rolling toward the left sideline. Weaver dove for the loose ball, saving it with his left arm fully extended before crashing hard into the bleachers.
At the other end, Jackson finished a layup through contact to give the Rams a two-point lead. His free throw made it 30-27 Penns Valley with 5:29 remaining.
Weaver did not return, icing his hand for the remainder of the game, but his hustle play proved crucial.
“That effort that Luke showed epitomizes 1-15 on my team,” Glunt said.
Williams, who finished with 10 points for Blairsville, tied the game at 31 on a breakaway layup with about four minutes to go.
From there, it was a defensive struggle. Neither team could find the go-ahead bucket as the clock winded under two minutes.
Penns Valley broke the tie with 1:19 remaining on a free throw by Logan Johnson.
Jackson then came up with a steal on the other end and went to the line after drawing a foul on the ensuing possession.
His free throws gave Penns Valley a 34-31 lead with 45.5 seconds left.
Cameron Livingston drove and finished through contact to pull Blairsville within 34-33 with 20.3 seconds left. He left the tying free-throw attempt short, but Williams grabbed the rebound and had a look from point-blank range to push the Bobcats ahead.
But Engle was there to swat it away.
“Thank goodness I got in the right position and got there at the right time to make the stop defensively,” Engle said.
The Rams got one more stop, Engle secured the rebound and went to the line with 3.8 seconds left. He missed both, but Jackson secured the loose ball and the win.
Said Glunt: “My kids still defended that last 3.8 and hustled their butts off.”