Chucks' bid at D-IX title comes up just short

CLARION — The Punxsy boys' basketball team traveled to Clarion Saturday with hopes of reaching one of its loftiest preseason goals — a District IX AAA Championship — and unfortunately for the Chucks, they came up just short in a 36-35 loss to D-IX foe Bradford.

Despite the final score, Punxsy head coach Dirk Neal said he appreciated the effort his team gave him, adding that he wouldn't have changed a thing.

"They played hard for us (Saturday)," Neal said. "As much as you hate to lose, effort-wise, I thought we gave it our all. These boys gave me everything I asked for in practice leading up to this game and in the pre-game talk. Everything we talked about was demonstrated on the floor. I just don't see any areas we could cut down. There were a lot of positives."

After falling to Bradford twice during the regular season — first in a 50-42 loss at home Jan. 20, then in a 53-38 loss at Bradford Feb. 17 — Punxsy tried to mix things up a bit with some new styles of defense the Owls hadn't seen from the Chucks yet this season.

"Amongst the team and coaches, we were just saying after the game here that we wouldn't change anything," Neal said. "I don't think they were anticipating our 2-3 zone. Then, we ran the box-and-one, the triangle and two. I think we mixed our defenses up pretty well. They never really seemed to get in the rhythm. And with the defenses we were playing, we knew we could work our way back into the game if we got behind by a few."

With things looking bleak for the Chucks, as they trailed by four points, 36-32, with just 30 seconds left, Punxsy never stopped battling.

After they were forced to foul with 27.4 seconds left, sending Bradford's Colton Holzwarth to the free throw line, Punxsy worked its way back into the game.

Holzwarth missed the bonus free throw in the one-and-one situation, and Punxsy regained control of the ball.

On the ensuing offensive possession, sophomore shooting guard Brandon Mancuso was fouled in the midst of a three-pointer. The shot fell short, but Mancuso went to the line and calmly sank all three free throws to bring Punxsy back within one at 36-35.

Punxsy fouled again on the inbound, this time sending Randy Ruffner to the line.

Ruffner missed his bonus free throw as well, Mancuso grabbed the rebound, and the Chucks called a quick timeout with 2.4 seconds remaining to set up their final play.

Neal drew up a play that involved a deep pass from junior Garrett Zimmerman to senior point guard Daniel Triponey, but the pass was out of Triponey's reach, and the Owls regained possession underneath their own basket.

The Owls inbounded the ball, and the clock wound to zero, giving the Owls the D-IX Championship.

Despite Holzwarth missing one of the foul shots at the end that could have sealed the deal for his squad, it was his presence on the other end of the court that stood out most strongly, as he was given the task of guarding Triponey, who is known for his ability to get the ball to the hole.

Triponey still managed 10 points to lead the Chucks offense, as Punxsy had some tricks up its sleeve on the offensive end, too. Mancuso ran the point for the majority of the game, allowing Triponey a bit more freedom on the wing so he wouldn't wear himself down.

"We knew coming in they'd shut Daniel down," Neal said. "That's why we put Brandon on the point, because Holzwarth does very well on Daniel. We didn't want him wearing himself out early, so we put him on the wing and gave him something different to do. Brandon handled it well, and we did just what we wanted to do. We just didn't get the basket when we needed it."

Punxsy's zone on the defensive end did well to shut most of the Owls down, even forcing 13 turnovers throughout the game, but one sharp-shooting Bradford guard, Brandon Teriberry, heated up from the corner to hit three triples en route to leading his team with 10 points.

Despite Teriberry's hot shooting and Holzwarth's stifling defense, Punxsy trailed by only five points after Bradford ended the third quarter on an 8-2 run, and the Chucks quickly tied it up in the final stanza on a basket by senior forward Ian Miller and a three by Triponey.

Bradford scored only two points during the final four minutes, as they slowed the game down and held the ball to force Punxsy out of its zone to foul. But a late Holzwarth basket proved to be the eventual game winner, and the Owls just hung on.

Teriberry and Triponey each managed 10 points to lead their respective squads.

Holzwarth and Danny Rinfrette followed closely behind Teriberry's 10 with nine apiece for the winning squad, and Mancuso's point total matched theirs for the Chucks.

Zimmerman was Punxsy's next highest scorer with six points, and he also led the way on the glass with 11 rebounds on the game.

Neal said in a close game, such as the one the Chucks played, one little bounce could have changed each team's fate.

"What if?," Neal asked. "What if we make a couple of those baskets early in the game, with the jitters we seemed to have? A few rolled around the rim and fell off. What if a couple of those go in? That's the difference in the game. We've never played in front of a crowd like that, but I praise these kids there. They stepped up to the plate."

With the top two seeds from District IX advancing to the PIAA Class AAA Tournament, Punxsy will now face Central Valley, the No. 6 seed out of District VII, Tuesday in a play-in game.

Neal said the quick turnaround will give his team one day to rest and one to practice in preparation.

"Coach (Darrin) Kriebel and I have the tape on Central Valley, so we'll sit down and review that (Sunday)," Neal said. "Then, it's one more day of practice after a day off Sunday, and we'll be ready to go by Tuesday."

After the game, Neal echoed a sentiment he had from last week, as the Chucks were looking ahead to the D-IX title game.

"It really is just icing on the cake from here," he said. "Anything else we accom-plish just adds to the great season these guys have already had."