CLARION — Clarion University played host to a thrilling postseason matchup Wednesday night, as the Brockway Rovers and the Keystone Panthers duked it out in spectacular fashion during their District 9 Class 2A quarterfinal game.
For four full quarters, the two teams put on a bout filled with both intensity and emotion, but thanks to a strong defensive effort and timely shots, the Rovers came away from Waldo S. Tippin Gymnasium the victors with a well-fought 46-28 win under their belts.
Brockway’s triumph over the third-seeded Panthers was as tough as a game could be, and head coach Rick Clark readily acknowledges the immense effort his team put in to advance to the semifinals.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Clark said. “Keystone plays awfully hard. They’re very well coached. (Matt) Clark and (Greg) Heath has been at it a long time on a lot of games, and we knew they’d be ready for us. We knew they’d probably try to slow the tempo down on us and try to slow us down with the zone.
“We knew we were going to have to probably try and score a little bit inside to open up the outside shots, and then hopefully hit some outside shots to open up the inside game a little bit... It was, overall, a great team win. At this time of year, it’s survive and advance. It doesn’t matter how pretty, you just got to find a way to win.”
The early moments of the game did not start in Brockway’s favor, with a forced turnover on its first possession quickly converted into a 2-0 Keystone lead courtesy of Tanner Wilson.
But the Rovers, as has been the case for most of the season, quickly retaliated. A free-throw from Zane Puhala got the Rovers on the scoreboard and a putback by Jarrett Esposito moments later gave them the lead at 3-2.
Esposito continued his aggressive play down low and earned himself a spot at the foul-line, where he went 1-for-2 and put the Rovers ahead 4-2.
However, the Panthers responded in kind moments later, when Wilson sank a three to give Keystone the lead back at 5-4.
From there, the two teams exchanged leads from one basket to another, until a basket and-one by Nate Wingard with only 25.3 seconds left gave the Panthers the late 11-9 lead.
All signs pointed to Keystone entering the second quarter with the all-important lead, but on Brockway’s last possession, Esposito fired one final shot from the three-point line to beat the buzzer to give the Rovers both a 12-11 lead and all the momentum heading into the second period of play.
The second quarter unfolded in a much different way than the high-paced contest held in the first. Both teams would only score three points each in the quarter. Brockway’s heavy pressured-defense was a key contributor to that statistic, ensured the Rovers ended the half leading 15-14.
Brockway forced Keystone to turnover the ball 11 times in the first-half alone while also out rebounding the Panthers 12-11. In addition, the Rovers managed to limit Austin Ion, a 1,000-point scorer for Keystone, to one point in the half, and Clark says that this defensive effort made all the difference in the Rovers’ victory.
“Our defense all night long was outstanding,” Clark said. “We didn’t get some of the turnovers we normally get off of the press, but I thought our half-court defense was awesome all night long. We played an aggressive man-to-man, and we’ve done it all year long.
“With the length of some of our guys we’re not the biggest team, but we have enough size that we can be a little bit physical. We told our guys we wanted make sure we owned the glass, that even though they were a little bit smaller, that they would hit the glass hard, and we wanted to make sure we hit the offensive glass hard to give ourselves some extra opportunities.”
Brockway wasted little time in hitting the net during the early moments of the third quarter, as Quade Lundberg’s power move down low drew a foul and enabled him to sink both his free-throws to increase the Rover lead to 17-14.
However, a far shot from the field by Wingard kept Keystone uncomfortably close Brockway, with the Panthers only trailing 17-16.
Much like the first quarter saw an exchange of leads, so too did the third, as both teams gave everything they got to obtain the game’s coveted lead.
But, thanks to a three-pointer from Jake Wineberg and a drive down the middle by Carter Adams, Brockway would end the quarter up 28-24, their first multiple-point lead entering a quarter of play.
From there on out, the Rover offense steadily took over the game, with Wineberg hitting a timely shot from beyond the field and another put-back effort by Esposito leading the way for Brockway to stay ahead at 39-26.
By the end of the quarter, the Rovers had prevailed over the Panthers by a final score of 46-28.
Though defense certainly played a significant role in Brockway’s victory, their offense also served a pivotal role in the night’s event.
Esposito lead the Rover offense with a double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds, while Wineberg had 11 points. Carter Adams added 10 points.
The victory, however, serves more than just a chance at advancing through the playoffs. It also serves as a shot at redemption for Brockway, as the Rovers had lost last year’s D-9 Class AA title-game to Kane, 38-31. According to Clark, the hunger to return to the championship is as high as ever for his team.
“Any time you can advance in the playoffs it’s huge,” Clark said. “Last year, these guys lost in the championship coming out kind of the same way. Coming out of the bottom seed in the tournament, and hopefully our guys can draw from that experience from last year in that run. It’s huge for the kids ... to get another shot. Our guys are looking forward to it.”
Brockway now advances to the semifinals, where they will play Ridgway at a time and date to be announced.