Ridgway advanced to its second consecutive AML Championship game with a 51-37 victory over Elk County Catholic in the boys' basketball AML semifinal Friday night at Ridgway Area High School.
Ridgway (22-1) advances to play Johnsonburg (20-3) in the AML championship game tonight at St. Marys Area High School scheduled for 8 p.m. The girls championship between Elk County Catholic and Kane is slated for 6 p.m. Johnsonburg handed Ridgway its only loss of the season on Feb. 7 by a 53-41 margin on the Rams' home court. It's the fourth meeting between the two teams this season with Ridgway leading the series 2-1. Ridgway won 45-38 at the Elk County Holiday Tournament on Dec. 30, 2011 and 39-38 on Jan. 20 at Ridgway's home game.
"We know it's going to be tough," Ridgway coach Anthony Allegretto said. "We got a lot of quickness on the court. It comes down to whoever makes the most plays. It's going to be a fun game for the kids to play in with a big crowd. The championship's on the line but it's not a do-or-die game. Kids can go and let it on the line and play and relax and not have a lot of pressure."
Ridgway used a 25-6 stretch during the first and second quarter as the main difference in the game. ECC held a 4-3 lead during after three and a half minutes before Ridgway point guard Eric Matheson added two quick layups for a 7-4 lead and a quick ECC timeout. Matheson then scored off an inbounds pass on the next possession for a 9-4 lead then Jordan Lundin hit a shot to extend the lead to seven.
Matheson nailed two free throws and then another hoop as the lead swelled to 11 with just over a minute left in the opening quarter. Matheson had 10 points in the first quarter and led all scorers with 29 points.
The Crusaders were able to steady themselves in the final minute with a Clayton Housler trey and a free throw from the ECC junior to trail by seven. Housler led the Crusaders with 12 points.
Matheson scored the first five points of the second quarter on a transition layup off a steal and a 3-point play.
"Several people hit some shots but Eric hit several shots," Allegretto said. "Our defensive pressure got us some steals, Eric on the back side at times turned those into baskets. To have him make the steal, that automatically makes him have the ball in his hands on the fast break and usually good things happen. He was a real leader and he proved he was the best player on the floor. They got some players too and we got some players but Eric really stood out a step above everybody."
Ben Wortman would added a field goal to cut the margin to 20-10 but a midrange jumper from Jesse Reynolds and a transition jumper from Matheson pushed the lead to 24-10 with 4:50 remaining.
"We've had a lot of games where we turn turnovers into points but there's a lot of times we turn those back and they turn them into points," Allegretto said. "In the past, we've had some bad passes against ECC that turned into easy buckets where we worked so hard to get stuff. I thought the defensive team effort was there."
Elk County Catholic coach Aaron J. Straub said turnovers hurt the Crusaders in the first half.
"We weren't very good," Straub said. "We did a very good job handling their full-court pressure but we certainly got careless with some really careless turnovers after we would break their pressure. From the first game, we were turning the ball over within the concept of their full-court pressure. [Last night], we turned the ball over when we were careless. We did not have a good defensive plan, they exploited us and our youth showed. If you can be youthful after 23 games, it showed."
A Lundin basket and a Sam Roselli basket on a second-chance opportunity gave Ridgway its biggest lead of the game at 28-10 with 2:27 left. Housler hit his second trey of the game and Matheson would add yet another field goal to give Ridgway a 30-13 lead. Brandon Schlimm added a hoop late in the half as the Elkers held a 30-15 advantage at halftime.
"I thought our post players really battled with Josh (Mitchell) and Okie (Alex Oknefski) and Sam (Roselli) came in and did a nice job too," Allegretto said.
Schlimm and Matheson alternated field goals to start the second half before Wortman poured in consecutive baskets to cut the margin to 32-21 with five minutes left in the third quarter.
Ridgway would answer back as Tony Leithner and Reynolds extended the lead to 36-21 at the midway point of the quarter. After two ECC free throws, Matheson and Josh Mitchell added baskets, Mitchell's hoops came on an offensive rebound.
Housler and Matheson alternated field goals as Ridgway took a 42-25 lead into the fourth quarter.
A Matheson field goal extended the lead to 44-25, Ridgway's biggest of the game. The Crusaders then kept the game from getting out of hand early in the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run. Hank Cappiello and Housler hit field goals for Elk County Catholic. After Ridgway missed two free throws, Schlimm would add four straight points to cut the margin to 44-33 with 3:24 left.
"I think in the second half we got a little tired and we have a couple of guys that aren't feeling well," Allegretto said. "With (Aaron) Sorge in foul trouble, they weren't able to give it (pressure) to me. I was trying to get it but they weren't able to give me the pressure that we wanted. It's a little easier to press when you're scoring. In the second quarter, we felt they were uncomfortable with what we were doing."
Ridgway would score six of the next seven points to effectively seal the game, the 6-1 run was capped by a Sorge field goal with 1:14 left to make the score 50-34.
"Ridgway is a very good team," Straub said. "Coach Allegretto is doing a heck of a job coaching and they have some very good players. Ridgway certainly has it going. They're certainly a good team and they will certainly be a team for people to take notice of in the upcoming playoffs."
Mitchell scored the first three points for the Elkers, Cappiello had the first four for the Crusaders as ECC led 4-3 early on.
Schlimm and Cappiello each had eight points for Elk County Catholic.
Elk County Catholic (13-10) will play in the District 9 Class A playoffs next week with information to be announced.