Brandon Clark relishes the challenge of frustrating opponents in his role at the top of State College’s 1-3-1 zone.
With his long arms and quick hands, Clark looks to get deflections and force ill-advised passes with four athletic teammates ready to make plays behind him. The 6-foot-4 forward proved to be a difference-maker in that role as the Little Lions earned a 73-65 win over Woodland Hills in the first round of the PIAA Class 6A tournament Saturday at Bald Eagle Area.
“He’s so long. He’s annoying up there, too,” State College’s Drew Friberg said with a smile. “He’s got big hands, too, because he’s a football wideout. It just allows us to pressure the ball out there, make ‘em uncomfortable and force turnovers.”
Behind that defensive performance and a balanced offensive effort, the Little Lions advanced to the second round of the state tournament, where they will face Pine-Richland on Wednesday at a site and time to be determined. Pine-Richland, which lost in the state title game last year, beat Pittsburgh Central Catholic 75-64 in its first-round game Saturday.
Woodland Hills challenged State College (24-1) in the first half, knocking down jumpers and battling on the glass to stay within striking distance. Heading into halftime, the Little Lions led 34-30.
“I thought we were rusty early and just a step slow because we were off two weeks,” State College coach Joe Walker said. “They were 20-4, great team, so moving forward we got to learn from some of the things that we didn’t do well — offensive rebounding and second half, down the stretch, turnovers.”
Led by Clark, the Little Lions broke the game open with their defensive effort in the second half. State College turned steals and blocks into easy points during a decisive run in the third quarter.
With the Little Lions leading 37-34 early in the third, State College started to pull away. After a breakaway layup and Woodland Hills turnover, Keaton Ellis finished at the rim to push the Little Lions ahead 41-34 with five minutes left.
Ellis then blocked a 3-point attempt by Woodland Hills guard Amante Britt, and moments later, State College turned a steal into a transition layup by Tommy Friberg. Clark later came away with a steal at the top of the 1-3-1 zone that led to a pair of free throws by Tommy Friberg to give the Little Lions a 47-36 lead.
“Coach knew that no one can really get past us in the 1-3-1, and I have quick hands out there,” Clark said. “It’s pretty hard to get past us, and we all collapse when they try to drive.”
Clark added another defensive highlight, pinning a Woodland Hills layup on the backboard for a block to pump up the State College crowd and his teammates. The defensive plays fueled the Little Lions on the fast break and helped State College take a 54-40 lead into the fourth quarter.
“We feed off the energy,” Drew Friberg said. “If one person makes a great play like that defensively, then everyone’s running and looking for leak-outs to get layups.”
It led to a balanced offensive effort, as Drew Friberg finished with 24 points, while Tommy Friberg (14), Ryan McNulty (13) and Ellis (12) each scored in double figures.
Clark, who finished with eight points, set the tone to send the Little Lions to the second round of the state playoffs for the second straight season.
State College is hoping Saturday marks its first step on the way to the state championship.
“We definitely feel a lot better than last year,” Clark said. “We have four more games left until we’re at the top.”