It wasn't a surprise that Jim Thorpe defended its Panther Valley Tip-Off Tournament title.
But how the Olympians did it was a surprise.
Jim Thorpe beat Mahanoy Area 49-36 on Saturday night in the title game. That followed on the heels of a 54-49 win over Marian one night earlier.
For a team that lived and died with its high octane offense one year ago, and that returned three double figure scorers from that squad, winning with a pair of strong defensive performances was a huge bonus.
The Olympians' defense was especially impressive in the second half against Mahanoy Area.
Thorpe limited the Golden Bears to just 12 points over the final two periods to turn a two-point halftime lead into a double digit victory.
"I'm very pleased with how we played defense this weekend, especially during the second half tonight," said Jim Thorpe coach Brian Carroll. "We stressed at halftime that we had to pick it up on the defensive end and the kids did just that."
Carroll said the win was even more gratifying because it was the type of game that the Olympians have struggled to win in the past.
"We've been the type of team that had relied on our offense and has preferred a wide-open, finesse-type of game," he said. "But tonight was a physical, rugged, defensive game.
"Mahanoy Area plays in your face, man-to-man, pressure defense. They made it difficult for us to run our offense. But tonight we gave it right back to them on our defensive end. We pushed and shoved and banged and played physical, tough defense as well."
Rashid Epps and Sam Lux both had double-doubles for Jim Thorpe. Epps had 11 points and 21 rebounds. while Lux added 10 points and 13 boards. Epps blocked five shots. The Olympians also got big games from PJ Johnson, who scored a game-high 13 points, and Corey Cinicola, who added 11 points.
"Jim Thorpe is a very good team," said veteran Golden Bear coach Mickey Holland. "Tonight we played as well as we could in the first half.
"But in the second half we struggled against their pressure. They forced us into taking some quick shots and some off-balance shots and then when we got some penetration, Epps was there to block our shots."
Leading 26-24 at halftime, Jim Thorpe used a six-point run midway through the third quarter to build a 37-28 lead.
Mahanoy Area got to within 39-34 early in the final period, but PJ Johnson, Epps and Corey Cinicola all scored for the Olympians to extend the lead to double digits and they breezed from there.
Epps, who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player after scoring 32 points and grabbing 40 rebounds in the two games, agreed with his coach on the key to the championship.
"We've really been working on improving our team defense," said Epps. "I think it paid off tonight. Everyone stepped up in the second half and that allowed us to pull away.
"The championship feels good. It gives us a lot of momentum to start the season."
Joining Epps on the All-Tournament team were Lux, Mahanoy Area's Jim Wagner, Marian's Matt Yaich and Chris Barletta and Panther Valley's Logan Stano.
DiBonifazio 0-4-4-4, Lux 4-2-3-10, Epps 5-1-8-11, Cinicola 5-1-2-11, Johnson 5-3-6-13, Mickens 0-0-0-0, Moranta 0-0-0-0, Richardson 0-0-0-0, Clark 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 19-11-23-49.
Moucherun 2-2-2-6, Backo 2-0-0-5, Senglar 3-0-0-7, Wagner 5-2-2-12, Kemmel 1-0-0-2, Goodman 0-0-0-0, Gaval 2-0-0-4, Urban 0-0-0-0, Baker 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 15-4-4-36
Jim Thorpe 15 11 13 10 - 49
Mahanoy Area 13 11 6 6 – 36
Three-pointers: MA – Backo 1, Senglar 1.