Portage crushed St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy’s hopes of playing for the District 6 Class A championship in the opening eight minutes.
Missed shots and turnovers defined the Wolves’ brutal start.
By the time St. Joseph’s got on the board, there was 1:06 left in the first quarter.
By the end of the period, the No. 10 Wolves faced a 15-point deficit that proved to be insurmountable in their 51-33 loss to No. 3 Portage in a semifinal matchup at Bishop Carroll High School on Wednesday night.
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“I just did not have these guys prepared with the energy level that they needed to play this game tonight,” St. Joseph’s coach Richard Ciambotti said. “And also we just missed a couple bunnies. When their offense is struggling, the defense sometimes follows suit. And that’s kind of what happened, I think, there in that first quarter.”
St. Joseph’s will play fifth-seeded Saltsburg in a district consolation game Friday at a site and time to be determined. The winner clinches a berth in the PIAA Class A tournament. Portage will take on top-seeded Bishop Carroll, which beat Saltsburg 70-30 on Wednesday night, in the championship game at St. Francis at 8 p.m. Friday.
The Wolves (10-15) fell into a 9-0 hole midway through the first quarter.
St. Joseph’s forward Mike Jabco missed a layup on the first possession and couldn’t get a short turnaround to fall the second trip down the floor. The Wolves’ next two possessions ended in turnovers.
It was a theme that continued during the first period and brought back memories of the team’s 1-7 start to the season.
“We looked like December St. Joseph’s tonight,” Ciambotti said. “Not February St. Joseph’s and that’s the scary part.”
Ciambotti said the Wolves took a step back offensively.
St. Joseph’s trailed 7-0 when guard Stephen Beattie went down with a severe ankle sprain with 4:32 left in the first quarter. The Wolves trailed 13-0 with 2:10 left after Portage’s Ryan Myher positioned himself for a putback off a missed 3-pointer.
St. Joseph’s took a timeout.
Portage guard Jake Swank waved his arms to pump up the crowd as the Mustangs (19-5) went to the sideline.
“Our kids came out, executed everything that we asked,” Portage coach Travis Kargo said. “Our intensity and our effort have been tremendous all year. Tonight was no different. And when you make shots, it makes you look a lot better too.”
Portage thrived at both ends during the dominant start.
The Mustangs used a pressure defense to keep St. Joseph’s off balance and limited the Wolves’ second chances. St. Joseph’s didn’t score until Garrett Bastardi finished a drive with 1:06 left in the first quarter.
“I think defensively our kids were prepared,” Kargo said. “Our kids were doing it and have been getting better and better defensively all year. This isn’t the first time we’ve played a great defensive basketball game. And I really think our kids really bought into the defensive side.”
Swank and teammate Michael Bryja combined for 13 first-quarter points to help Portage build a 17-2 lead.
Swank got to the basket and knocked down pull-up jumpers to finish with 20 points. Bryja paced the Mustangs with 21.
Portage led by double digits the rest of the way.
“We never looked like we were in a flow on offense and the game just flew by,” Ciambotti said. “It’s like one of those games where you’re like, ‘Alright, we’re finally getting our feet.’ Well, it’s the middle of the third quarter. It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter. It’s a little too late at that point.”
Jabco paced St. Joseph’s with 16 points, scoring 10 in the second half after the slow start.
“Mike Jabco makes 90 percent of the shots he was missing tonight,” Ciambotti said. “It’s hard to put your finger on why. Everyone has an off night. Everybody has an off night and I think Mike just struggled to put the ball in the hoop a little bit and I think that just for some reason, the rest of the team let go after that.”
Ciambotti expects the Wolves to bounce back with their season on the line Friday.
“We’ll give it our all Friday night,” Ciambotti said. “I don’t expect these guys to have any sort of quit in them whatsoever. They’ll come out and play their hearts out on Friday night.”