Fourteen seconds seemed like an eternity for Joe Walker on Thursday night.
Inside Mt. Aloysius’s Athletic Convocation Center, the State College boys’ basketball coach watched as time dragged on and a mad scramble unfolded in front of him. His hope — one of his Little Lion players would secure the basketball and force an Altoona player to foul. Instead, the ball bounced from State College player to Altoona player and back and back again before a final, mid-court heave from Altoona’s Jermaine Samuel bounced off the rim and to the floor.
Then State College players rushed it as the desperation miss clinched the Little Lions’ 58-57 win in the District 6 Class AAAA championship.
Alex McCann and Drew Friberg scored 12 points apiece for the Little Lions and Tyler Snyder came up with his team’s final offensive rebound after Tyler Hall missed two free throws in the final seconds that kept it a one-point game. But on the ensuing inbounds play, chaos broke loose.
Altoona’s Danny Kirwin came up with a late steal but his progress down the court was stopped by two Little Lion defenders. When Kirwin tried to move the ball to a teammate, bodies started flying with players lunging for the loose ball as time ticked down under eight seconds.
“It felt like two hours,” Walker said of the final, frenetic sequence that saw players from both sides bashing off one another and falling to the court. “It was right in front of the bench. … I’m glad the refs let them play because there was probably some pushing and shoving on both sides and it looked like a rugby match there for a second but I’m thinking, someone secure the ball so I can call a timeout and we can run a play to get it back in.”
Those final seconds were just as agonizing for Altoona coach Paul Hasson, who tried to comfort his players with pats on their backs as the Little Lions received their championship medals.
“Oh boy it was a heart-breaker,” Hasson said. “It felt like forever we were trying to get the ball up the floor toward our basket. We ended up getting a shot and it was pretty close. When you lose by one you can go through so many scenarios in a game, could have done this or done that.”
Now, State College (13-10) will prepare for its next big-game scenario. The Little Lions are back in the PIAA Class AAAA championship tournament where they’ll play Harrisburg on March 7 in the first round. The Cougars beat the Little Lions twice in the regular season.
Altoona (9-13) entered Thursday’s game 0-2 against State College in the regular season. Neither of those games were as close as this one. While there were only a handful of lead changes and State College led for the majority of the game, Altoona kept the deficit manageable. Meanwhile, State College kept Altoona at a distance.
The Mountain Lions tried outside shots early and often and were unable to penetrate State College’s zone defense for large portions of the game. Despite dominating State College in the rebounding department 22-7 in the first half, Altoona shot just 20 percent from 3-point range and just 29 percent overall. In that span the Little Lions were patient, getting solid penetration from Snyder and McCann who combined for 13 of State College’s first 26 points.
A buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Hall gave the Little Lions a 26-24 halftime lead.
“We don’t like any offensive team to get comfortable,” Walker said. “That was our biggest gameplan — pressure them because we don’t have to worry about matching up, get to those zone spots, force people to make cuts and we did a pretty good job of staying matched up on their shooters for most of the game.”
Bobby Corl led Altoona with 21 points, while Jacob Port added 13.
Samuel and Kirwin chipped in 11 and five, respectively but Altoona’s two captains — who got the most looks — combined to go just 2 of 13 from 3-point range.
“We got some baskets when we needed them,” McCann said. “We got stops when we needed them. At times they couldn’t finish.”
But Altoona started to dial in when faced with its biggest deficit of the game.
With just over half of the fourth quarter left to play, the Mountain Lions trailed 51-41 and Corl got hot again. The Altoona junior rattled off seven points over the final eight minutes. He finished another layup through a foul and nailed the free throw to cut State College’s lead to 55-51 with just over 2:30 to play.
Down by just two after Samuel made two free throws in the final minute, McCann was fouled on his way into the paint and made one of two shots to make it a 3-point game. Altoona’s Isaiah Wansley scored the final basket of the game to cut State College’s lead to one. Coming back the other way, the Mountain Lions were forced to foul Hall who missed both of his shots. Snyder hurried to the corner to snag the rebound and allowed State College to kill more time before the final wild scramble.
McCann called Snyder’s rebound — just his second of the game — “clutch.” McCann meanwhile added a team-best five rebounds and five steals. Five different Little Lions forced turnovers while Cooper Gulley came off the bench in the second half and turned in two big blocks — one against Corl in the third. The blocks got State College’s student section going.
“Everyone contributed,” Walker said. “Not always on offense, hit big free throws, hit a big three, got a big steal, got a big rebound. So really they rely on each other when there is a little bit of adversity or we have those pressure situations. They’re great friends, great teammates and they rely on one another.”