It was like a quick combination right as the bell rings — and the State College boys’ basketball team was left staggering.
North Allegheny, which plays at a frenetic pace to begin with, delivered blow after blow to begin the second half in its PIAA Class AAAA first-round game.
“They definitely came out swinging,” Little Lions senior guard Kyle Kanaskie said. “They brought the pressure and we turned it over a couple times. They really took the momentum the first couple minutes.”
The Tigers scored 11 of the first 13 points after halftime in the turning point of the game to end State College’s season 84-76 Saturday night at the Altoona Fieldhouse.
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North Allegheny (22-4) heads to a second-round meeting with District 7 champion New Castle (27-0) on Wednesday while the Little Lions’ season has ended.
“It definitely hurts,” said Kanaskie, who finished with 19 points, four rebounds and four assists in the final high school game of his career. “I don’t think it’s hit us yet, because we competed so hard.”
Bryan Sekunda netted a game-high 27 points, including 19 in the first half, and grabbed five rebounds but had to watch the final three minutes of his career from the bench after fouling out. Bryce Williams netted 13 points and pulled down eight rebounds and Jason Costa had seven points and 10 rebounds against the torrid Tigers.
“They are up and down, in your face,” Costa said. “In practice we had six defenders on the court, that’s the only way to practice it. They were in your face.”
North Allegheny was paced by Sean Hennigan’s 22 points, Adam Haus’ 15, David Haus’ 10 and nine apiece from Elijah Zeise, James Meeker and RJ Colabrese.
The Tigers came in with a reputation for relentless full-court defense and a penchant for taking 3-pointers.
The long-range shooting did not hurt the Little Lions — North Allegheny made just 5 of 25 attempts while State College drained eight treys — but it was the pressure defense that proved to be the difference maker.
The Tigers created 24 Little Lion turnovers, including nine in the decisive third quarter and five on State College’s first six possessions after halftime.
“That was really big,” North Allegheny coach Dave Degregorio said. “We always say the first two minutes of the third quarter is probably the most important part of the game. I thought the kids came out just focused. The kids came out, got a couple easy baskets, and it put them on their heels a little bit.”
It started just 20 seconds into the half, with a Colabrese steal that turned into a layup, and 15 seconds later Ziese turned a steal into a layup. After a Little Lion timeout came another turnover, and Hennigan drained a 3-pointer just 57 seconds into the quarter.
Following two Sekunda free throws, David Haus scored on a layup, then swiped the ball and converted it into two more points 15 seconds later.
“It swung momentum really bad,” Costa said. “It was at the right time, at the right place to win the game.”
In 2:04 of action, a 43-41 halftime lead for the Little Lions became a 52-45 deficit.
“That was kind of the gap and we had difficulty closing that,” said Frank, whose team made just 10 of 32 second-half field goal attempts and was 27-for-64 in the game. “They were surprising me where they came from (on defensive traps).”
Degregorio said he did not make any major changes or impassioned speeches during the break to kick-start the run.
“I said nothing,” Degregorio said. “They’re a motivated group. All we talked about was bringing the traps a little bit later, it’s a bigger court and we had a hard time adjusting to that early on, so we brought some of the pressure a little bit later and started working their guards a little bit longer.”
Williams finally gave State College a second-half field goal with a put-back tip-in, but 3-pointers from Meeker and Joe Mancini sandwiched around a Ryan Karstetter bucket, then a Meeker basket off yet another steal, extended the lead to 60-49 and the Tigers had firm control.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Kanaskie said. “They’re a really good team. We were ready for them. We tried to make a run right after they did, but we couldn’t.”
The margin got as close as 74-68 after a technical foul led to two Kanaskie free throws with 1:31 left, but North Allegheny made its attempts from the line to finish the game.
It was looking good in the opening minutes for State College, which shot out to a 23-5 lead highlighted by a breakaway dunk for Sekunda and some sharp long-range shooting for Sekunda and Kanaskie.
But a few Tiger 3-pointers and a lot of open drives to the basket got North Allegheny back in the game, gradually whittling the lead to two points by the break.
“That frantic pace really kind of tires you out,” Costa said. “We look up it was a seven-point lead, we look up it was a four-point lead, we look up it was a two-point lead. It was just weird.”
The Tigers had struggled with their shooting, making just 6 of 21 field goal in the first quarter, including 1-for-12 from long distance, but they made 23 of 41 field goals the rest of the way thanks to all those layups.
“We knew we weren’t going to be perfect against that pressure,” Frank said. “You can’t be. The defensive game plan, by and large, was not to let them get layups and contest threes. But they just did a terrific job with their dribble drive. We just couldn’t stay in front of the ball.”
It left them behind on the scoreboard and done for the season, with a third straight District 6 title but an early exit from the state tournament.
“We really wanted to win this game, we really wanted to play New Castle,” Costa said. “But we had a really great season and I’m not going to hang my head. I’m happy with everything we did.”