CLARION – The Ridgway Elkers don't mind winning championships at the Johnsonburg Rams' expense.
After taking the county and league titles over Johnsonburg earlier this season, the Elkers defeated the Rams 40-37 Saturday night-- the fourth time in five tries this season-- and won the District 9 Class A championship in the process.
"We won 21 games last year but had nothing to show for it; this season, we wanted championships," Ridgway head boys varsity basketball coach Anthony Allegretto said following the win. "This feels great and the kids are ecstatic, we've worked so hard for this and they deserve it. I'm very proud of this team."
Winning the crown was anything but easy.
Riding a wave of euphoria with a 26-12 halftime lead, Ridgway's wheels nearly fell off in the second half as the Rams cut the lead from 14 points to just four going into the fourth quarter.
"We were down by 14 at halftime but we made it a goal that we'd have it to three or four points by the end of the third quarter and we did that," Johnsonburg head boys varsity basketball coach Bill Shuey said after the runner-up finish.
Facing a 4-point deficit to open up the fourth quarter, Johnsonburg barely needed another minute to knot the score. Sophomore Cole Peterson got things rolling with a layup 12 seconds out of the gate to set the score at 30-28. Junior Mitchell Holmberg then came up with a steal near halfcourt and dusted off the ball for a game-tying layup at 30-30 with 6:57 remaining.
On the Elkers' next possession, junior Josh Mitchell broke inside for a layup and was subsequently fouled with a 2-point lead with 6:28 to play. He missed the free throw and the Rams tied the score again, this time at 32-all, as junior Quinn Luhr broke through under the basket.
A layup from Ridgway junior Jesse Reynolds put Ridgway back in the driver's seat at 34-32 with 5:42 left in the game; the Elkers would come up big as senior Eric Matheson, who paced all scorers with 14 points on the night, put in a jumper off a turnover with 5:15 on the clock for a 4-point lead.
"We had 17 turnovers in the second half and it just seemed like nobody wanted the ball," coach Allegretto said. "We'd make amazing passes then turn the ball over like we didn't want it.
"That's when Eric [Matheson] stepped up and made enough plays to keep our lead and win the game."
Ridgway would turn the ball over after a traveling call on Reynolds and after Holmberg missed a 3-pointer, Johnsonburg senior Michael Shuey grabbed the offensive board and put in a layup with 4:24 to play to cut the lead to 36-34. Shuey would finish the night with 10 points.
After a tipped ball went out of bounds during the next possession, the Elkers were unable to make an inbounds pass in the allotted five seconds and turned the ball back over to Johnsonburg. The Rams would come up empty, however, but their pressure defense created another turnover with 2:37 remaining.
Johnsonburg sophomore Cameron Grumley threw up a 3-point try on the other end but missed; Ridgway took possession and senior Alex Oknefski was fouled, but missed his free throw attempt.
On the other end, Grumley was fouled with 1:37 to play but also missed his try. That's when Matheson took over, driving the lane with 1:16 on the clock and putting in the layup for a 38-34 advantage.
The Rams weren't finished, however, as Peterson found an opening 23 seconds later and drained an improbable trey to cut the lead to just one point with 53 seconds on the clock.
"In my mind, it was going to boil down to at least one or two possessions and we had to execute," coach Shuey said. "We missed a few foul shots down the stretch, missed a layup but those things if they go in, maybe we're up by one or two."
The Rams came up with a turnover on the other end but a Peterson layup under heavy pressure missed; Shuey fouled Ridgway senior Aaron Sorge under the basket with 37.4 seconds left in the game and the senior guard calmly drained both attempts for a 3-point lead.
Needing to make up three points down the stretch, Peterson missed a 3-pointer with seven seconds on the clock and the Elkers fumbled with possession down the court but managed to keep the ball away from the Rams as time ran out.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of," coach Shuey said. "I thought we put out a very good effort in the second half. They gave it their all and they didn't quit.
"Sometimes the ball didn't bounce our way or we got a steal but lost it. There were some back-and-forth plays but with a couple of bounces our way, maybe we could've taken the lead. Ridgway is a very talented team and they're deserving of a win. I congratulate them on winning the district title."
Despite the big lead, coach Allegretto said he wasn't fooled.
"We knew this game wasn't over," coach Allegretto said. "I told our team in the locker room at halftime that [Johnsonburg] would go to something different, we guessed 1-3-1 [defense] and they changed something to speed us up. They couldn't let us be on offense for 35 to 45 seconds at a time so they had to get us going. We knew they would catch a pass here and a pass there and get a layup.
"It was OK the first two or three times but after we had our first turnover, [Johnsonburg] got a jump in their step, they figured out where we were going with the ball. They started jumping our passes and our passes were too soft, and luckily we made enough plays near the end to hold them off."
Ridgway jumped out to an early 14-4 lead in the game as the shots from the field weren't falling for Johnsonburg.
Mitchell and Shuey traded early layups to start the game off at 2-all; Ridgway would start to make a run with a behind-the-back pass from Matheson to fellow senior Jordan Lundin who put in the layup with 5:48 to go in the first quarter for a 4-2 lead.
The Rams continued to have bad luck on their end of the floor as their shots routinely caromed off the iron. A Sorge toss in the paint cushioned the early lead to 6-2 and he followed up with another shot with 3:43 in the first quarter for an 8-2 margin.
Matheson drove the lane on the Elkers' next possession for an early 10-2 lead before Shuey found himself alone under the basket to cut the deficit to six points.
A Mitchell layup at the 2:08 mark gave Ridgway an 8-point lead before Oknefski put in a layup with 6.4 seconds on the clock for the 10-point advantage after the first quarter.
Despite only two field goals, both coming under the basket from Shuey, the Rams scored a little better in the second quarter but couldn't get the game any closer.
Lundin started with a layup 10 seconds in for a 12-point advantage that was short-lived as Holmberg broke through with a lengthy 3-pointer, cutting the lead down to 16-7. Matheson and Sorge added layups to up the lead to 20-7 but Luhr was able to make a 3-point play after being fouled on a successful layup with 4:20 to play until halftime.
Matheson converted a short jumper in the paint to extend the lead to 22-10 with 3:20 to play and converted two free throws on the next possession for a 14-point lead. Grumley finally broke through on Johnsonburg's next possession, scoring on a long jumper with 2:24 to go. Reynolds came up big on the other end and was fouled on a successful layup, but failed to convert his free throw attempt, as Ridgway had a 26-12 halftime lead.
"We shot 30-some percent in the first half to Ridgway's 75 percent," coach Shuey said. "To still be only down by 14 points, it could've been worse, and I told our players that."
The Rams started the third quarter with a strong press but Ridgway was able to break through as Matheson got inside for a layup with 6:53 on the clock for a 28-12 lead.
That's when the game got more interesting than the Elkers wanted it to be.
Peterson hit his first 3-pointer of the night with 6:30 to play in the third quarter to cut the lead to 28-15. After an Elker miss on the other end, junior Frank Kocjancic put in a layup with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 11 points.
Ridgway would then turn the ball over three straight times as the Rams got back into the game.
"We both ended up with 19 turnovers but at the half Ridgway only had two," coach Shuey said.
After a missed shot inside, Shuey tipped in the ball as the Rams closed the gap to 28-19; the Elkers would cough up the ball again and Peterson raced in for a layup with 4:04 to go in the third quarter as the Elkers' lead dwindled to just seven points.
After the third straight Ridgway turnover, Peterson was fouled with 2:57 to play in the third quarter but converted only one try to cut the lead to six points.
Mitchell would right the ship with a timely layup 17 seconds later as Ridgway regained an 8-point advantage.
Shuey put in a fadeaway jumper 22 seconds later to inch Johnsonburg closer and after Mitchell was fouled on the other end, the junior forward missed both free throw attempts as the Rams regained possession.
The teams traded possession on turnovers before Holmberg hit a layup with nine seconds on the clock to cut the lead to 30-26 going into the game's final quarter.
"They showed their character and ability to play with intensity-- putting forth that kind of effort will carry them a long way in this life," coach Shuey said. "They didn't quit, they went out and showed a lot of class, character, and a lot of heart.
"We had Ridgway on their heels but they're a very good team. Ridgway did the things necessary down the stretch to win a close game."
This was the fifth time the two teams faced off this season.
In the first meeting of the teams, Ridgway earned a 45-38 win Dec. 30, 2011, to win the county tournament. A few weeks later, Ridgway won a 39-38 home game Jan. 20 over the Rams. Johnsonburg finally broke through Feb. 7 at home as they cruised to a 53-41 win to spoil Ridgway's undefeated season. The Elkers got their revenge 11 days later as they beat Johnsonburg, 49-46, in overtime, to win the AML [Allegheny Mountain League] title Feb. 18 in St. Marys.
Moving ahead to the state playoffs, Johnsonburg (22-5) is scheduled for a March 9 game against Bishop Carroll (14-12) at Clarion University at 6:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Ridgway (26-1) is scheduled for an 8 p.m. game also at Clarion University against Sewickley Academy (11-12).