High School Sports

Boys basketball: State College gets rematch with North Allegheny in PIAA opener Saturday

It brings a certain amount of symmetry, but the State College boys’ basketball team is hoping for a different outcome.

The season’s opening weekend featured a matchup between the Little Lions and North Allegheny.

The state playoffs begin with the same teams tangling again, although a little more is on the line this time.

On the heels of a third straight District 6 title, State College (17-7) will face North Allegheny (21-4) in a PIAA Class AAAA opener at 7 p.m. Saturday at Altoona High School.

The Tigers finished as the fourth-place team out of District 7, losing 66-62 to Hampton in the semifinals last week.

But it is another result that can bring some motivation for the Little Lions – a 68-53 Tigers win in the finals of the Skip Coleman Memorial Invitational in the North Gym.

“We grew and I have to think they grew,” said senior guard/forward Bryan Sekunda. “Both teams have probably come a long way.”

Only so much can be learned from the first meeting – if the game was played the first week of February instead of in December it would be a different story – but still there was much to learn from that game.

Most importantly, the Little Lions can remember a 31-23 lead at halftime, and being outscored 28-12 in the fourth quarter.

One key difference for this game was State College had less than 24 hours to prepare for that one, after both played the night before, while this time there is more than a week to cover the game plan.

“You’ve got to come out with a lot of energy,” said Sekunda, who leads the team averaging 20 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. “If you come out flat in a playoff game, it’s not easy to come back. The atmosphere in a playoff game is a lot different from the regular season.”

They will need a special game plan for this opponent. North Allegheny plays full-court defense and dials long distance often. The Tigers attempted 43 3-pointers in that loss to Hampton, head coach Drew Frank said, and took 23 3-pointers in the first half alone in that meeting in early December.

“We haven’t played a team like that since we played them early in the season,” Sekunda said. “I can’t say anyone plays the same as they do. They are so press-oriented and they shoot so many threes.”

While the Little Lions do some pretty good work of their own from long distance – Sekunda leads the team with 55 made threes, followed by 47 for Kyle Kanaskie and 45 for Jason Costa and all three make at least one-third of their attempts – they are not about to get into a war of launching bombs.

“We don’t want to live-and-die by the three,” Sekunda said. “That’s never a good thing. We definitely shoot threes, that’s part of our team, but we’ve got to keep it going both inside and out.”

“If we’re putting 43 up, we’ve got problems,” Frank said. “We have players that have a green light to take it any time they feel that it’s a good shot, and we have others that better be making good decisions. If we’re taking the same number of threes as North Allegheny, if it’s less than 20, that’s terrific. If it’s more than 20 and we’re attempting the same number, it favors them.”

The Tigers only lost to two teams all season – twice to Hampton and twice to eventual District 7 champion New Castle, which is the state’s lone undefeated boys program in any class.

State College is playing better now than a few weeks ago, having won four straight after losing four out of five games. Three of those losses, however, were to teams also alive in the AAAA bracket.

The Little Lions are feeling different now that the calendar has turned to March.

“The guys get it that it’s got to come from within them,” Frank said. “It truly is about them. The focus should be about the players at this point, not on us.”

While he does some of the talking, Frank also has deferred some motivational talk to the seniors like Sekunda and Kanaskie, who have been through the state playoffs twice before. He also has brought in alumni to talk about playing at this time of the season.

“I know this team wants to leave a mark on State College basketball,” Frank said. “(Saturday) will be the first step toward doing that. I think they get that. They want that for this team. The seniors know this is their last time together.”

Sekunda understands that kind of motivation, and would like to be playing again next week.

“The win-or-go-home thing is pretty much what we’re living by,” said Sekunda, who has heard from Division I programs but has yet to choose a college. “This is the last time this team will be together, so whenever the season’s over, that’s it. There are no more chances. We don’t want to go home.”