The Penns Valley boys’ basketball team trailed for just 167 seconds all Wednesday night.
It was the final 36 seconds that hurt the most.
The storybook season came to an end for the Rams, who were unable to hold off West Middlesex in a 55-52 loss in the PIAA Class AA second round at DuBois Middle School.
“It’s really tough to lose when you’re working so hard the whole game through and then it kind of slips through your fingers,” Penns Valley’s Zach Engle said. “Working hard the entire game, working together as a team.”
Aside from a 2-0 deficit at the game’s outset, Penns Valley (20-6) didn’t trail again until the fourth quarter, and it wasn’t until Josh Porterfield lofted a short-range shot over Engle with 36 seconds left that the Big Reds had the lead for good at 51-50.
“We just played the hardest we could,” said Ben Alexander, who scored a game-high 22 points and added seven rebounds. “Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. We battled, had a great season and we have a legacy we can pass along to the younger guys.”
Nicky Cannone’s 18 points led the Big Reds (20-8), with Porterfield adding 14 points and eight rebounds and Jace Burger netting 11 points.
Engle just missed a triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks, and Logan Pearce notched 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Those three seniors — senior guard Chase Collison also was a starter — accounted for all but six of the team’s points.
West Middlesex will meet Aliquippa, a winner over Bishop Canevin, in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
When the Rams exited the locker room, everyone still in uniform, many sought out family members and drew long embraces, a tough way to end a special season after leading most of the night. But the lead was never fully secure, growing only as large as eight points in the third quarter.
A major culprit to extending the lead was turnovers — Penns Valley racked up 24 in the game.
“That’s got to be a season high,” coach Terry Glunt said. “The thing is, we turned it over 13 times in the first half and we’re winning? That made us feel good. That was a positive. That was a concern of mine, the pressure they would bring. They really didn’t let us run our sets, so we were ad-libbing the whole night.”
The Rams had trouble with the Big Reds’ full-court pressure, setting up traps as soon as Penns Valley crossed midcourt.
“We worked on it,” Alexander said of the press. “It was affecting our play. Once we slowed it down a little bit more we had some more chances at some buckets. We prepared for it before, but we just couldn’t handle it.”
“Defensively I thought we started to get to them,” West Middlesex coach Chad Mild said. “We created a lot of turnovers. In the first half, I don’t know how many we had but it felt like we should have been up. In the second half we stated getting the ball inside, hitting the gaps against their zone (defense).”
An Alexander 3-pointer brought the Penns Valley faithful to their feet with 2:43 left, and it seemed their team had the momentum with a 48-46 lead. But that was answered by a Ryan Dogan 3-pointer 48 seconds later, and when the Big Reds got the lead again they began to milk the clock. Engle scored on a bucket from close range with just over a minute left, but Porterfield floated a shot over Engle to put his team up for good.
The battle in the paint between the 6-foot-7 Engle and 6-foot-6 Porterfield stood out most of the night, with each grabbing the upper hand for stretches.
“It was definitely a battle to go up against him,” Engle said. “He was probably a good 20, 30 pounds on me, could throw his weight around really well, hold the ball really well, handle himself. It was definitely a battle, but I enjoyed the challenge.”
A Pearce attempt rolled off the rim a few seconds later. Cannone’s four free throws, sandwiched around an Andrew Tobias layup, finished the scoring. The last of the free throws came with 7.3 seconds left, and the Rams tried to set up one last attempt, but another turnover at midcourt wrapped up the game.
“There’s a lot of ways you could say, ‘If I could just go back in time, make that one shot, make that one basket, make that one play,’” said Engle, who plans to continue his basketball career at Juniata. “But there’s a way things work themselves out.”
Glunt figured his team had posted a 55-18 record over the last three seasons, capped by the first state tournament win on Saturday.
“We never had to prep for the second round of states before,” said Glunt, who noted all of his team’s losses came against teams that made the PIAA tournament. “It was fun. It was exhausting, but it was fun, especially with this group of kids.”
It also was a tough way to exit for the four seniors, who could not hold off the Big Reds in the end.
“We were excited about (the season’s success) but we wanted to keep going,” Alexander said. “We wanted to reach more, but hopefully the younger guys can do that coming down the road.”