Jim Thorpe's defense may still be a work in progress.
But down the stretch against Panther Valley Tuesday night, it looked more like a finished product.
Trailing by three points with two minutes to go, the Olympians forced three turnovers and scored the final six points of the game to earn a hard-fought 52-49 victory in both school's Schuylkill League Division 1 opener.
"Last year we might have folded in that situation," said Thorpe head coach Brian Carroll. "We told them they have to get up in their face ... We stressed pressure, pressure, pressure the ball.
"We have to pressure for 32 minutes the full length of the court and get the game in our style of play. Up front in that press, even though it wasn't perfect, it caused havoc. We still have a ways to go but it was a heckuva win to steal one on the road early in the season."
PJ Johnson's steal and resulting layup with a minute and a half to play closed the Olympian deficit to 49-48. On the ensuing inbounds, Thorpe's defense caused PV to lose the ball again. Johnson made them pay by driving for the good-ahead basket with 59 seconds left.
The host Panthers (3-2; 0-1) had a chance to re-gain the lead 20 seconds later at the foul line. Two missed shots, however, and a traveling call after gaining the offensive rebound didn't allow that to happen.
After fouling six times in 23 seconds to get Jim Thorpe (4-1; 1-0) into the bonus, Panther Valley watched Darius Clark sink two free throws to up the Olympians' advantage to three points.
The hosts had a clean look at a three-pointer in the final couple of seconds to tie the game, but Thad Ogozalek's shot just missed the mark and Thorpe's DeQuan Brown came away with the board to seal the win.
"We put the ball in Thad's hands and set some offscreens ... He made a great read and got a good look," said PV mentor Pat Crampsie. "It just didn't drop. We were real happy with Thad getting a clean look at the end there.
"The last minute and a half we didn't finish. We mde some mistakes and they capitalized. Good teams do that, and they made a few more plays than us down the stretch."
Johnson hit a three-pointer to open the game's scoring and Dane Ciavarella followed with an inside bucket to give Thorpe an early 5-0 start. That five-point lead would prove to be the largest of the contest as the two teams battled back and forth the entire evening. In all, the game featured eight ties and 10 lead changes.
"It was a great game," said Crampsie. "It was an awesome atmosphere, a local rivalry, and the first league game.
"Their pressure certainly affected us at times. They're a team of runs. And it seems like whenever we had a little momentum going, they'd make one of their runs. It's disappointing to let it slip away but, that being said, that's a very good Jim Thorpe team."
Thorpe was led by Johnson and Clark, who both finished with 19 points. Nick McArdle led PV with 14 while Nate Mathewson had 12, Brock Mitchell, in his first action of the season, had eight points and 11 rebounds.
"Both teams put it all on the line," said Carroll. "PJ had that huge steal at the end. That really ignited us, and showed us that we can win this game. It's huge to win a close game because you gain confidence from it."
In the JV game, Deonte St. Hill's 17 points led Jim Thorpe to a 49-24 win.
Moore 2-0-0-4, Lynch 0-0-0-0, Ciavarella 2-1-2-5, Freeman 1-0-0-3, Brown 1-0-0-2, Clark 7-4-4-19, Johnson 8-1-1-19. TOTALS: 21-6-8-52.
Szczecina 0-0-0-0, McArdle 5-2-2-14, Ogozalek 3-0-0-8, Romanchik 1-2-2-4, Dalessio 1-1-2-3, Mathewson 6-0-2-12, Mitchell 4-0-0-8. TOTALS: 20-5-8-49.
Jim Thorpe 16 10 10 16 - 52
Panther Vy. 18 12 6 13 - 49
Three-pointers: Jim Thorpe - Johnson 2, Clark 1, Freeman 1; Panther Vy. - McArdle 2, Ogozalek 2.