ST. MARYS — Elk County Catholic used a 14-0 run in the third quarter to pull away from Leechburg on its way to a 65-41 victory in the opening round of the PIAA Class A playoffs at St. Marys Friday night.
The District 9 champion Crusaders held a four-point lead (27-23) at the half and the game remained tight early in the third quarter.
After Regis Wortman scored the first four points of the second half for ECC (27-1), a free throw by Nico Venanzio and a basket by Eli Rich helped the Leechburg get back within five at 31-26 with 3:45 to go in the third.
Elk County Catholic then went on a 14-0 run over the span of 2:32 take control of the game over the WPIAL sixth-place finishing Blue Devils.
Brennen Klawuhn got the run started with a bucket, as a three-pointer by Alex Breindel and scores from Wortman and Wehler ballooned the lead to 14 (40-26) at the 1:21 mark.
Then out of a time out as Leechburg (13-11) was prepared to inbound the ball, its head coach was assessed a technical foul for complaining about a previous call, as the Crusaders were awarded a pair of free throws and possession.
Wortman drained both foul shots, as Wehler followed by hitting a three-pointer on the extra possession to cap the run and give ECC a 19-point lead (45-26) inside the final minute of the third quarter.
In the closing minute of the frame, Connor McDermot was fouled on a three and made all three foul shots for Leechburg, while Brady Schneider followed with a pair of free throws to send the Crusaders into the final quarter of play with a 47-29 advantage.
“I think it was a combination of that they (Leechburg) did not shoot the ball well as well as they did in the first half and we were able to get into their zone a little bit more,” ECC head coach Aaron Straub said.
The Crusaders coach added that penetrating the Blue Devils’ zone and finding open teammates on the baseline was a key for his team’s offensive success in the second half.
ECC maintained its large lead throughout the fourth quarter, as down the stretch the game turned into a bit of a free-throw shooting competition.
After a score by Breindel put the Crusaders up 56-38, the teams combined for just one made field goal in the final 3:37 of play, while they attempted a combined 16 free throws.
ECC had the upper hand at the foul line throughout the game, as it finished 17 of 21 from the line, while the Blue Devils went 12 of 18 from the free-throw line.
Mark Kraus scored the lone bucket over the final three minutes and change with 32 seconds to go, while a pair of free throws by Isaac Brock with 15 seconds to go gave the Crusaders their largest lead of the night at 65-41, which went on to be the final.
Leechburg won the opening tip-off, but after grabbing an offensive rebound on its opening possession eventually turned the ball over, which led to a three-pointer by Breindel to open the scoring 35 seconds into the game.
Jack Blumer got the Blue Devils on the board at the 6:16 mark with a score one the inside.
Back-to-back Leechburg turnovers then led to a pair of fast breaks for the Crusaders, as Breindel finished off the first with a bucket in the paint and Wortman was fouled on the second and hit both free throws to give ECC a 7-2 lead with 4:50 left in the opening quarter.
Wormtan finished with a game-high 23 points to lead the Crusaders to the win, while Breindel added 14 points on the night.
Leechburg used a three from McDermot to trim into the lead, as after one quarter of play ECC maintained a slim lead at 11-9.
McDermot, who entered the game averaging 17.5 points per game, scored a team-high 13 for the Blue Devils in the defeat.
“What ended up happening was when you tried to shade McDermot, that leaves some driving lanes for the other guys,” Straub said.
The Crusaders opened the second quarter on a 8-3 run on baskets by Wormtan and Wehler, as well as a score and a pair of free throws from Brennen Klawuhn as they jumped out to a 19-12 lead three minutes into the frame.
The Blue Devils responded with a 5-1 run of their own, as they trimmed the deficit to as little as one on three separate occasions late in the quarter.
A trey by Breindel put ECC in front 27-23 with 2:03 left on the clock in the second quarter, as both teams were held scoreless down the stretch in the opening half.
The Crusaders used a pair of key defensive stands down the stretch to maintain their lead, as Wehler’s defensive pressure forced a five-second call on Leechburg and Carter Lindemuth stepped in to draw a charge in the final minute as ECC held onto a four-point lead at the half.
“In the first half we settled for a lot of threes and their zone was so spread out that we had to settle and most of those threes were contested,” Straub said.
Along with stepping in to draw a charge defensively, Lindemuth was also a key facilitator for ECC on offense, as he dished out several assists on the night.
“He was able to penetrate and get into the paint and that was pretty big for us,” Straub said. “Carter (Lindemuth) handled the ball well tonight and that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do.”
The Crusaders committed just 10 turnovers on the night, while forcing Leechburg into 20 giveaways.
“We did a lot of things well tonight, but I’m not so sure we out hustled them,” Straub said. “I’m not saying we didn’t hustle, I’m really proud of our kids and how they played, but we ran into a team that really hustled.”
The Crusaders advance to the second round on Tuesday where they will take on Vincentian Academy, the runner-up out of the WPIAL, who defeated St. Joseph’s Academy, the third-place finishers in District 6, 79-65 on Friday.