RIMERSBURG – A poster board hanging on the wall in the gymnasium at Union High School reads "We love the game because every dribble, shot, or pass is an opportunity for disaster or glory." The former was true for the #2 seeded Union Knights on Friday evening as they struggled to get any momentum going and saw their season come to an end, while the latter was true for the #7 seeded Elk County Catholic Crusaders as they led all the way to take a 59-38 win and advance to the semifinals of the District 9 Class A playoffs.
ECC coach Aaron Straub explained that his squad was focused on stopping three key players from the Union team, and he was happy with their effort.
"Austin Davis (Union) controls everything and is a great defender. He does a great job penetrating and we knew we wanted to take his penetration away. We did a fairly decent job on him until the end of the game. Taylor Smith is a shooter [averaging about] 15 points a game. I thought we did a nice job taking him away. Brody Pollock, I think, inch-for-inch, he may be the best player in the District. Those three were our priority," Straub said.
"In all fairness to Union, Union didn't shoot it very well tonight, and when you don't shoot it well you press a little bit. When you press a little bit, it's easy to be off a little bit," Straub added.
Straub noted that there were some areas where his team could have been better, but overall he was happy with their effort.
"One thing I was disappointed in, I don't think we did as good a job as we could have on the boards. [Union is] a scrappy team and they play bigger than they are. We really worked hard for this one, and I thought our penetration was very good and it certainly was a big win for us," Straub said.
The Crusaders led 11-7 after the first period, 27-12 at the half, and 42-23 at the end of the third quarter. They briefly allowed Union to close to within nine points in the fourth quarter before pulling away again to preserve the victory.
"It did get to nine real quick," Straub said. "When you're playing a team with that much offense that's going to happen, especially if you lose track. We bailed a couple people out and they made some free throws and then they hit a three from the top of the key and it was unraveling quickly. But giving credit to our guys, we did a nice job with staying the course and fortunately we made a couple free throws that were really big."
Straub added that some of the players who came off the bench made some particularly big plays down the stretch that helped the team come away with the win.
"Michael Jacob had a couple really huge putbacks for us, and maybe the play of the game was when Mitchell Vallone stepped in and drew the charge and that at least slowed their momentum down a bit," Straub said.
The Crusaders were led offensively by junior Clayton Housler with a game high 24 points on nine twos and a 6-for-10 night from the foul line. Senior Ben Wortman added 9 points for ECC on four twos and a 1-for-2 night from the line.
The Knights were led by senior Austin Davis with 13 points on three twos, a three, and a 4-for-5 night from the line. Junior Aaron Graham added 10 points for Union on two twos, a three, and a 3-for-5 night from the line.
The Crusaders opened with a pair of buckets by Wortman and Housler to take an early four-point lead. Graham put Union on the board with a bucket about midway through the first period to cut ECC's lead to 4-2; however, the Crusaders then went on a seven-point run on a three by Alex Herzing and field goals by Hank Cappiello and Housler to make their advantage 11-2. Union ended the quarter with a bucket and foul shot by Pollock and a field goal by Davis to make ECC's lead 11-7.
ECC's Brock McCullough and Union's Mike Harris traded buckets to start the second quarter, as did Wortman and Smith. Elk Catholic then went on another seven-point run with another three by Herzing and field goals by Wortman and McCullough. Graham sank a foul shot for the Knights to make the score 22-12 with just over two minutes remaining in the half. Cappiello hit a field goal to add to the Crusaders' lead. Housler and Pollock both came up empty on trips to the line, however, Housler made a bucket with just seconds left on the clock to give ECC a 27-12 lead at the half.
Davis and Housler traded buckets to open the second half. Davis sank a pair of foul shots for Union. McCullough and Wortman answered with field goals for the Crusaders. Harris hit a pair of foul shots, Housler made another bucket, and Davis added a foul shot for the Knights to make the score 35-19. ECC ran up five points on a bucket and foul shot by Housler and a field goal by Jacob. Smith and Jacob traded buckets, and then Smith ended the quarter by going 2-for-3 at the line to cut ECC's lead to 42-23 with one quarter remaining.
After a bucket by Jacob early in the fourth quarter, Union started to rally by staging a seven-point run that started with a three by Graham to cut Elk's lead to 44-30. Housler made a field goal, while Graham added two foul shots. Davis sank a three for the Knights to cut ECC's lead to 11 points. Wortman briefly extended the advantage by making a foul shot; however Davis was fouled while making a field goal and sank the ensuing foul shot, closing the gap to just nine points with the score being 49-38 with just over five minutes remaining. The Crusaders responded to the pressure in a big way, holding Union scoreless for the remainder of the contest while going on a 12-point run to come away with the 59-38 victory.
Elk Catholic's victory, along with wins by Johnsonburg and Ridgway on Friday evening puts three Elk County teams in the District 9 Class A semifinals.
"I'm really proud of Elk County have Elk County represented with three teams in the Class A semifinals. Class A is a good division," Straub said.
The Crusaders are now 15-10 on the season. They will meet the Johnsonburg Rams at a site and time to be announced in a District 9 A semifinal contest.
In the other semifinal match-up on Wednesday, Ridgway will take on Clarion-Limestone at a site and time to be announced.