PUNXSUTAWNEY — Once Bradford switched to the triangle-and-two defense during Thursday night's District IX Class AAA Boys' Basketball Playoff Semifinal, the complexion of the game completely changed.
Defense put the Owls (7-16) in position to win their ninth district title in 11 years with a 41-38 overtime victory over Punxsutawney.
Top-seeded St. Marys beat Clearfield in the other semifinal, 50-23, and will meet Bradford in the title game — most likely Saturday, March 5, at Clarion University.
The Chucks (9-14) led 18-12 at halftime before a 16-7 third quarter in the Owls' favor pushed the road team ahead 28-25 entering the final quarter. But Punxsy wouldn't go away that easily.
Punxsy junior point guard Daniel Triponey's three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Forrest Works and Colton Holtzwarth at the fourth-quarter buzzer sent the game into overtime, and Punxsy head coach Dirk Neal hoped that was the spark his team would need to climb over top during the four-minute overtime period.
Instead, the Chucks couldn't muster a basket until Triponey's three with 1.2 seconds left in overtime cut the Owls' advantage to 41-38. Once Bradford passed the ball in and the time ran off, the Owls were guaranteed at least two more games this season.
At the same time, Thursday marked Punxsy's final game of the year.
"I would have thought that the jumper that got us to overtime would have been a spark, but it seemed like we went into a panic attack and nobody wanted to shoot," Neal said. "Everybody missed shots, and everybody just quit shooting. You have to attack the rim and learn how to be a scorer."
Triponey scored a game-high 18 points to lead the Chucks. He made a three-pointer during the final two seconds of each of the last three periods. Punxsy's Logan Weaver was held well below his 16.5 points per game average, as he had eight points, including the Chucks' first six points.
"They did a nice job in that triangle-and-two on Daniel and Logan. Even with that, they were looking to take somebody off and leaving guys on our team wide open," Neal said. "Nobody could step up and make a shot. We got right to the top of the fence and couldn't climb over top of it. We just fell back down."
Punxsy senior Darren Pifer finished his career with a solid game, scoring seven points and pulling down six rebounds before fouling out in overtime.
Bradford's Charles Fair scored a team-best 12 points, all after halftime. He made 6-of-8 free throws in overtime and spark Bradford's comeback with a pair of threes early in the third quarter.
Dan Rinfrette added nine points, and both Colton Holzwarth and Forrest Works scored eight points.
Punxsy took eight free throws to Bradford's 24, including 16 during the final two periods.
"Offensively, they weren't attacking the rim and actually passed up some shots when they were running the clock out," Neal said. "They had confidence in their defense, and when you get a lead like that, that happens."
Punxsy's offensive output didn't change during the first four quarters. It scored nine points during each of the first, second and fourth quar-ters and seven during the third quarter. The difference in regulation was Bradford's 16-point third quarter.
As Punxsy was in the middle of a nearly seven-minute scoring drought during the third quarter, the Owls rebounded the Chucks' misses and creating fast breaks on the other end.
The Chucks (9-14) were ahead 18-12 at halftime, but by the time they made their second basket with 46 seconds left in the third quarter, the Chucks were ahead 25-22. After three Bradford points, Triponey's buzzer-beater to end the third quarter made it a 28-25 entering the fourth.
During the first two minutes of overtime, Fair made 4-of-6 free throws to push the Owls ahead 38-34. Punxsy's Corban Cressley (1-of-2) and Garrett Zimmerman (0-for-1) each made it to the free-throw line before Bradford scored again, but they combined to make just one foul shot.
By the time Fair nailed two free throws with 21 seconds left, the Owls were leading 40-35.
"It's a tough way to end the season. These are a nice, fine bunch of young men," Neal said. "You just hate to see it come to an end. They worked hard, and I would have loved to see them win tonight and have those next two games, but it just wasn't meant to be."