Before St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy took the court Friday night, Wolves coach Richard Ciambotti reminded his players what they faced a month earlier.
Preseason expectations to make the district and state playoffs appeared far-fetched and St. Joseph’s could have packed it in.
Instead, No. 10 St. Joseph’s made a memorable run in the District 6 Class A tournament before falling to fifth-seeded Saltsburg 67-54 in the consolation game at Hollidaysburg Senior High School.
The Wolves (10-16) could have packed it in after falling into an 11-point halftime hole, but they put together a comeback and went into the fourth quarter down by two.
“They just keep battling, keep fighting, keep scrapping,” Ciambotti said. “We’re athletes out there playing basketball. A lot of these guys, this is their second or third sport. They came together this year and made a great run at the end of the season. This game was very much a microcosm of the rest of the season.”
The Trojans (13-11) advance to the PIAA Class A tournament to face the District 9 runner-up. Clarion-Limestone and Cameron County play in the District 9 championship game Saturday.
The Wolves’ season came to an end as Saltsburg dominated the fourth quarter, using a 20-3 run in the first five minutes of the period to pull away for the victory.
Saltsburg’s Frank Plowman buried a 3-pointer on the first possession of the quarter. Skylar Sphon came up with a steal on St. Joseph’s first possession and finished a transition layup, and Plowman drilled another 3 on the Trojans’ next trip to push the lead to 50-40 with 6:45 left.
“He caught fire,” Saltsburg coach Don Stitt said. “Frankie really the last three or four weeks, he’s been the only one consistently making shots. The kids relish in them type of moments.”
Stitt greeted his players near halfcourt, urging them to keep their intensity high heading into a timeout.
The Trojans built on their lead with a pair of free throws by Nick Porter and another layup by Sphon.
St. Joseph’s guard Michael Kresovich, wearing injured teammate Stephen Beattie’s No. 23, knocked down a 3-pointer for the Wolves’ first field goal nearly three minutes into the period.
Saltsburg led 56-43.
About two minutes later, at a timeout with 3:28 left, the Trojans’ fans started a “We are Saltsburg” chant with their team leading 60-43.
A layup by Dan Shirley made it 62-43 and capped the decisive 20-3 run by Saltsburg that started with Plowman’s 3-pointers.
“Once they got those 3s, they got a lot of momentum from that and they just carried that,” said Mike Jabco, who paced St. Joseph’s with 20 points. “They rode that the rest of the game.”
Jabco went scoreless in the fourth quarter, and the team’s other top scorer, Beattie, was out with a fractured ankle suffered in the district semifinals.
Jabco scored seven of the team’s eight points in the first quarter against Saltsburg’s 2-3 zone. The Trojans used a box-and-one defense, with Saltsburg center Ryan Treece often faceguarding Jabco to limit his opportunities in the second quarter.
Jabco had 14 points at halftime with the Wolves trailing 31-20.
“He’s the focal point of everything we do and he did a great job of finding space tonight,” Ciambotti said. “I think he moved well without the ball. Guys were looking for him. Unfortunately, it just came to the point where we were trying to force it to him. And when that happens, you can’t have any flow offensively if you’re trying to force the ball to one guy.”
Jabco broke loose to highlight his team’s comeback in the third quarter.
He knocked down an open jumper at the right elbow to cut the deficit to 39-34. He intercepted a pass on the ensuing Saltsburg possession and finished on the other end to bring his team closer. And he pulled down an offensive rebound and got a layup to make it 39-38.
The teams went through a handful of empty possessions before Plowman knocked down a 3-pointer in the left corner — his first field goal of the game.
Rocky Chirieleison connected down low to send St. Joseph’s into the fourth quarter down 42-40.
“We proved that we can stick with them,” Jabco said. “We came right back in, but I have to give credit to them because they pulled out ahead and they finished the game well.”
St. Joseph’s postseason run capped its second varsity season and demonstrated progress for a program that started with a JV schedule two years ago.
“Two years ago, we had 11 guys who just kind of for the first time met each other, let alone played basketball together,” Ciambotti said. “So I think to be able to even look like a varsity basketball team at this stage is pretty incredible.”