ST. MARYS – The Elk County Catholic Crusaders won the Allegheny Mountain League boys basketball championship with a 65-55 victory over Ridgway Saturday night in the "Dutch Oven" at St. Marys Area High School.
It is Elk County Catholic's second consecutive league championship and capped a week in which the Crusaders defeated Brookville, Bradford, DuBois Central Catholic and Ridgway.
"I think we're pretty tired," Elk County Catholic coach Aaron J. Straub said. "We had a tough week, a four-game week. I told the guys before the game that in 29 years I don't ever remember having a four-game week and especially a four-game week this intense. That's a heck of a week. We need to make sure we build on this."
The championship hopes weren't as strong midway through the third quarter as Ridgway burst out to a 39-27 lead after a 12-3 run in the first 4:30 of the quarter.
The Crusaders then began to heat up from the floor as Ben Daghir poured in a trey and Ricky Pearsall added another field goal. A hook shot from Ridgway's Alex Oknefski stalled the Crusader run for a moment but two straight 3-pointers from Darren Simons and Daghir pulled Elk County Catholic within three at 41-38 entering the final quarter. Simons led all scorers with 20 points.
"The last 11 minutes, we played hard and hit some shots," Straub said. "I'm glad that we were able to turn it around because we had to come from pretty far down. We hit some shots but I think the point is our defense, we got some energy from our defense and we felt a little better about the shots that we took. We upped the energy level and then guys just got into the flow. Once they got into the flow, they got some confidence. I'm really proud of the guys. We could have folded when we were down but we didn't, we hung in there."
Ridgway coach Anthony Allegretto said the Elkers did what they needed to in the first moments after halftime.
"We came out, we did what we wanted to," Allegretto said. "We built that 3-point lead into double digits like we've done all season. We got to the basket, we got some easy shots. I think at the point our kids got the 12-point lead, I think coach Straub called a timeout and went to a trap. At that point, our kids got shook up and started throwing the ball around. They got excited and started burying threes. They got hot and we weren't getting the shooters at that point."
The Elk County Catholic then erupted in the fourth quarter with a 27-point effort in the final eight minutes. Daghir tied the game early in the fourth quarter with yet another trey and a Simons field goal would put the Crusaders ahead for good. Tyler Herzing made 1-of-2 free throws on an intentional foul and Pearsall added another jumper as ECC led 46-41 with 5:23 remaining. Daghir nailed a 3-pointer and Herzing contributed yet another field goal as the Crusaders led 51-41 with just over five minutes remaining. Daghir finished with four 3-pointers and the Crusaders as a team finished with nine treys. Elk County Catholic had a 19-0 run after Oknefski's basket and a 24-4 run from when Ridgway held its 12-point lead in the third quarter.
"What really happened was the meltdown on the offensive end," Allegretto said. "It was five guys that absolutely lost their focus and starting forcing shots. It's something to learn from. In a tough game, you got to get tough and we didn't, we melted down. You're going to face adversity in the game. We told them at halftime, 'They're going to come at you.' Hopefully, we match it and we did at the beginning. Once they hit us with the trap, we melted down. It was a total meltdown for a good eight minutes of the game."
Allegretto said the trap was expected but Ridgway handled it poorly.
"They've used it in the past games with us," Allegretto said. "It's just a matter of not waiting for the trap. Then we got the trap, we panicked and just threw the ball, sometimes throwing it towards their basket. You got to know better than that. I must not have done a good enough job."
The Elkers did begin to reduce the Crusader lead after four straight points from Jordan Lundin made the ECC lead 51-45 midway through the fourth quarter. After trading baskets, a 5-0 ECC spurt, made possible with two Herzing free throws, a Simons field goal and another Simons free throw, opened the gap to 60-47.
Dom Aiello of Ridgway added five straight points to keep some suspense in the building late and a Jesse Reynolds 3-pointer made the lead 62-55 for the Crusaders after Luke Daghir sunk two free throws. Elk County Catholic was able to close out the game with free throw shooting for the 10-point win.
Pearsall had 13 points for the Crusaders while Ben Daghir had 12 and Herzing finished with 10.
The Crusaders found inside success with Mitchel Haberberger as the ECC senior scored the first eight points. Elk County Catholic led 6-2 early on but Oknefski was fed off an assist from Eric Matheson for a bucket and Matheson himself used a dribble drive to tied the game at 6-all.
A Simons trey broke an 8-all tie before Ridgway's Lundin added four straight points and Matheson hit the front end of a 3-point play. A Herzing free throw closed the Ridgway lead to 14-12 after the first quarter.
Aiello and Herzing traded baskets in the second quarter as Ridgway led 16-12. ECC followed up with seven straight points as Herzing hit a shot, Pearsall buried a three and Simons followed with a 2-pointer.
Matheson and Ben Jaques added four straight points to prompt a timeout from Elk County Catholic with Ridgway leading 20-19.
Ridgway led 22-21 with just over two minutes left in the half and extended the lead with a Lundin 3-point play. A Simons shot from beyond the arc closed the lead to one, Lundin finished with a 2-pointer with one second left as Ridgway led 27-24.
Lundin had 11 points in the half and led the Elkers with 19 points. Matheson had 14 points.
After halftime, Matheson, Aiello and Lundin notched six straight points to put the lead to 33-24. A Herzing three was answered by Ridgway with six straight points to give Ridgway its biggest lead at 39-27.
"Ridgway did whatever they wanted to against us for the first two-and-a-half quarters," Straub said. "It looked like a team that could do anything they wanted against us. Fortunately, we got a couple stops and got a couple turnovers. They were just taking the ball and taking it right at us and really made us look silly for quite a while."
Both teams are 20-4 overall. Ridgway is the No. 2 seed in the District 9 Class A playoffs and will host No. 15 seed A-C Valley (10-12) in the first round at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"We'll look at the video and it's a matter of getting the right people in the right spots, doing the right thing with the ball, making good decisions," Allegretto said. "We made bad decisions for a five-, six-, seven-minute period."
Elk County Catholic is seeded third and will host No. 14 Oswayo Valley (11-11) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"I think every night out is an opportunity for excellence," Straub said. "We played a very good game on Monday night. Wednesday night at Bradford, we had an exceptional first half. [Friday night], we played a great overtime. [Saturday night], we played a good last 11 minutes. I think this team has showed what they could possibly do when they play hard."
ECC 12 12 14 27 - 65
Ridgway 14 13 14 14 - 55
Elk County Catholic – 65
Darren Simons 6 5-6 20, Ricky Pearsall 5 1-2 13, Ben Daghir 4 0-0 12, Tyler Herzing 3 4-6 10, Mitchel Haberberger 4 0-1 8, Luke Daghir 0 2-2 2, Eric Wehler 0 0-2 0, Totals 22 12-19 65.
Ridgway – 55
Jordan Lundin 6 7-7 19, Eric Matheson 6 2-3 14, Dom Aiello 4 1-1 9, Aaron Sorge 2 0-0 4, Alex Oknefski 2 0-0 4, Jesse Reynolds 1 0-0 3, Ben Jaques 1 0-0 2, Totals 22 10-11 55.
3-pointers: Elk County Catholic 9 (B. Daghir 4, Simons 3, Pearsall 2), Ridgway 1 (Reynolds).