ORWIGSBURG – Last night's District 11 Class AAA boys basketball semifinal between top-seeded Pottsville and fourth-seeded Jim Thorpe was a roller coaster of suspense and unpredictability.
There were ups and downs and twists and turns, but when the thrill ride of a game finally came to a complete stop, the Crimson Tide were all smiles, while the Olympians were left sick to their stomachs.
With a 55-46 victory, Pottsville advances to Friday night's District Championship against sixth-seeded Allentown Central Catholic (7:00 p.m. at Blue Mountain High School). The win also guarantees the Crimson Tide (23-3) a spot in next week's PIAA Class AAA State Tournament. Meanwhile, for the second consecutive year, a loss to Pottsville in the District semis ends Jim Thorpe's season.
The Crimson Tide shot out of the gates strong and immediately started its ascent up the scoreboard. Pottsville's climb continued for the entire first quarter as they raced out to a shocking 14-0 lead.
The Olympians (17-8) missed their first 14 shots from the field and Pottsville reached its peak with a 16-0 lead with 6:53 remaining in the second quarter.
"We didn't move, we didn't set good screens, we threw the ball away and we didn't hit foul shots when we had the opportunities (1-for-6 in the first half)," stated Jim Thorpe coach Brian Carroll. "That's the first time in my three years of coaching here that we were shutout in a quarter and it turned out to be a huge difference in the outcome of the game."
Jim Thorpe finally got on the scoreboard with a Rashid Epps bucket at the 6:39 mark of the quarter. However, rather than breathing a sigh of relief, the Olympians used Epps' basket as a momentum boost to send Pottsville on a downhill free fall.
Jim Thorpe converted eight of its next 10 shots from the floor to cut the deficit to 26-19 at halftime. The Olympians' surge continued well into the third quarter as they made three of their first five shots, which closed the gap to 27-26 midway through the frame. Jim Thorpe's spark came from an unlikely hero as P.J. Johnson came off the bench to score Jim Thorpe's first nine points of the quarter.
"The guys knew what was on the line and they didn't want their season to end. One trip at a time they started cutting into the lead by playing the type of basketball that we want and expect out of them," added Carroll.
"PJ was just incredible tonight. He's been struggling the last few games and he not only lost his starting role but he also seemed to lose his confidence," noted Carroll. "But we never gave up on him and he never gave up on us and he played one of the best games of his career."
The Olympians tied the game at 34 on an Epps bucket with 21 seconds left in the third, but for the second consecutive quarter, the Tide's Nick Schlitzer converted a three-point play at the buzzer to extend his team's lead.
Jim Thorpe trimmed the deficit to two points (41-39) with 3:35 remaining in the game, but they slowly started running out of gas, as the Crimson Tide salted the game away from the foul line.
Despite scoring 29 points in the second half, the Tide made just three field goals after the break (3-for-13 from the floor). The other 21 points came from free throws, as Pottsville converted 24-of-32 from the charity stripe (Jim Thorpe was just 4-for-11 from the foul line).
"Jim Thorpe came out with so much energy when they fell behind early, and with their athletes playing that hard, it really caused us a lot of problems," stated Pottsville head coach Dave Mullaney. "Their defensive pressure really got us out of our comfort zone. We're used to playing a system-type game and they got us in an up-and-down game and that's to their favor."
"We didn't necessarily play well but we did what we had to do to win."
Schlitzer led all scorers with 20 points on the night, while Josh Whalen chipped in 12.
For Jim Thorpe, P.J. Johnson and Dean DiBonifazio led the way with 11 and 10 points respectively.
DiBonifazio 4-0-0-10, Lux 2-2-5-6, Epps 4-0-3-8, Cinicola 2-1-2-5, Richardson 1-0-0-2, Johnson 5-1-1-11, Clark 2-0-0-4. TOTALS: 20-4-11-46.
Schappell 2-0-0-6, Heffner 2-2-2-6, Guers 0-0-0-0, Bridy 0-0-0-0, Whalen 2-8-9-12, Leymeister 2-2-2-6, Tobin 0-0-0-0, Schlitzer 4-10-15-20, Spece 1-2-4-5. TOTALS: 13-24-32-55.
Jim Thorpe 0 19 15 12 - 46
Pottsville 14 12 11 18 - 55
Three-Pointers: JT - DiBonifazio 2; P - Schappell 2, Schlitzer 2, Spece 1.