It's the end of the road, but it was a good ride

MONACA โ€” Entering Tuesday night's PIAA play-in game against the Central Valley Warriors, Punxsy boys' basketball coach Dirk Neal said anything after the District IX tournament was simply "icing on the cake."

After a successful season that saw Punxsy overcome the loss of a senior point guard to transfer and the Chucks earn their first trip to the D-IX title game since 2005, Punxsy's season came to an end Tuesday at the hands of the Warriors, 54-45.

Despite the loss, Punxsy Neal was pleased with the full-game effort from his squad.

"We never quit, and we battled for 32 full minutes," Neal said after the season-ending loss. "It was just a great ride the entire season. It was a pleasure to be around these kids, and I think the underclassmen have bought into this program. Hopefully, what they saw tonight will help them realize what it takes to get to this next level, and our program can just continue to build from here."

Things looked good for Punxsy in the first half, as the Chucks were able to control the pace and slow things down a bit to earn optimal shooting opportunities.

The Chucks outscored Central Valley, 11-10, in the first quarter behind a diverse scoring attack. Senior point guard Daniel Triponey scored four points in the first stanza to lead the way, and sophomore Brandon Mancuso hit a three. Seniors Luke Janocha and Ian Miller each added buckets, as well, as the Chucks' defense held the Warriors' potent offense to just 10 points.

The Warriors had jumped out to an 8-2 lead, but Punxsy didn't panic. It battled back, and after a pair of Triponey free throws brought Punxsy within one, Triponey hit a two to give Punxsy its first lead of the night.

The second quarter was even better for Punxsy, having rid itself of any early-game jitters, as the Chucks doubled up on the Warriors, 14-7.

Miller was the hot-handed Punxsy player to start the quarter, scoring four quick points. A Mancuso three gave Punxsy an 18-10 lead and forced Central Valley to use a timeout to slow the Chucks' momentum.

The teams played back and forth from that point, and Punxsy's lead was back to eight points at the half break after the Warriors closed the scoring with three free throws.

"They were getting looks," Neal said of the Warriors' offense, "but they weren't getting the looks they wanted. They seemed kind of surprised by our triangle-and-two defense that we came out in, and we did a great job with it. We rebounded well out of it, too. We didn't give up many offensive rebounds, and that helped us lead at halftime."

Unfortunately for the Chucks, the cold-handed Warriors' shooters found their groove in the third quarter and started to heat up, outscoring Punxsy 21-7 in the third. The Warriors' full-court pressure defense certainly played a factor in the point differential.

"The difference in the game was that third-quarter pressure," Neal said. "They would score, and then we'd have a costly turnover that led to another costly score. They scored 21 points in the third, and things just snowballed. They were very athletic and trapped us. We broke the trap a few times, but then we made mistakes and threw it away. All the bad things that were happening on our end were turning to the good for them. But these guys never quit fighting, and I give them credit for that."

Chad Phillips, who had just two points in the first half for Central Valley, scored five quick third-quarter points to sandwich a Mancuso three, and Dan Steffine, who ended up tying Triponey for the game's high-scorer with 20, added the next four to narrow the gap to two points.

Over the next three minutes, the Warriors hit four three pointers, including a pair by three-point specialist Brian Kolich, to open up a 38-30 lead that the Chucks just couldn't overcome.

Early in the fourth quarter, Central Valley pushed the lead to as many as 10, but Punxsy came storming back on a pair of baskets by Triponey to pull back within six points.

Chad Phillips answered with four points for the Warriors, though, and they never looked back to cruise to a 54-45 victory and advance to the first round of the PIAA State Championships.

With the game being the last for seven Chucks' seniors โ€” Triponey, Janocha, Miller, Alex Fedigan, Jesse Venturini, Tim Pearce and Michael Rosenberger โ€” Neal had some departing words of praise for them.

"These seniors, I just couldn't ask for anything more out of them," Neal said. "The camaraderie they brought to the table as they brought these underclassmen under their wings is very important. It's essential that the older guys on the team give that leadership and the younger guys learn from the leadership. There was never an issue this year. We'd make a mistake, and one of the seniors would come over and pat the underclassmen on the back or tell them to keep their head up. Coach (Darrin) Kriebel and I are very proud of these guys."

Neal even said that he is certain the class his senior leaders exhibited this season will extend beyond athletics in their lives.

"These guys were just fantastic leaders," Neal said. "Those guys, even the ones who didn't get as much playing time as they probably would have liked to through the year, they'll all be a successful bunch of young men. I wouldn't have traded them for anything."