PUNXSUTAWNEY — Carl A. Truance, for whom the Punxsutawney Holiday Classic has been named since 1995, was an avid fan of Punxsutawney sports.
He would have been pleased with the performance the Chucks gave Thursday night to be crowned tournament champions.
Punxsy's Cory Geer, playing off the bench, hit a shot with 38 seconds on the clock to give the Chucks a 53-52 lead, and the Chucks held on to win by that same score.
"The way we've been playing, it's just such an honor to say we won this tournament," Punxsy head coach Dirk Neal said after the game. "We've been climbing that ladder and working hard in practice to get better. This is such a reward for these kids. What a great, great weekend."
Neal is excited about the reward his team received, but he's also excited about the direction his team is headed entering the new year.
"Rolling into the new year, we are sitting at 5-2," he said. "We've won five of the last six games, and the kids are just looking forward to playing. In the past, we've been tentative, but this year, we're chewing at the bone and ready to go and get after teams."
Clarion had a pair of chances late in the game. After electing to hold the ball for a late shot in a timeout with 21 seconds left to play, Clarion missed the shot and was forced to foul with 1.7 seconds left.
On the ensuing inbound play, Punxsy tried to throw a deep pass to burn the clock, but the ball went out of bounds without a Punxsy touch, leaving 1.7 ticks on the clock and giving Clarion the ball underneath its own hoop.
"We wanted to set a back screen to open up some things with the guy going deep," Neal said. "Unfortunately, it looked open, but we couldn't get a hand on it. Then as a coach, you just sit there, hold your breath and say a little prayer if you have time. They had a good look to beat us, but it just didn't fall."
In the timeout with 21.8 seconds remaining, Neal could be heard from the sidelines asking each of his players who wanted to be the star. In the end, though, it was a full-team defensive effort that held off the Bobcats' surge.
"In the timeout, we talked about playing defense like we never have before," he said. "There were 21.8 seconds left, so I told them to give me their best 21.8 seconds. And that's just what they did."
The game started with a hot hand by Punxsy sophomore Brandon Mancuso forcing Clarion to change its game plan of playing zone.
Mancuso hit a pair of threes in the first minute of play and added a two later in the quarter to force Clarion to take away his open looks.
When the Bobcats did just that, other players stepped up for the Chucks.
First, it was Alex Fedigan hitting a big three late in the first quarter to tie it after the Bobcats had taken a 13-10 lead with a 9-2 run.
Mancuso was freed up on some looks early in the second quarter and hit another pair of threes — one of which was a fadeaway bank shot while he was being fouled — to draw the attention back to himself, and Fedigan hit a pair of quick threes of his own to give Punxsy a 27-21 lead and force a Clarion timeout.
"We've been working on our post play and things like that," Neal said. "Clarion having to step out on Brandon or Alex allows other people offensive opportunities, too."
Unfortunately for the Chucks, their shooting hands went cold after the timeout, and Clarion went on a 7-0 run before Geer ended it with a two and Daniel Triponey hit a buzzer-beating shot to end the first half and give Punxsy a 31-30 lead.
Clarion outscored the Chucks 11-8 in the third quarter, though, and regained the lead entering the final period of play.
Triponey, who was later named tournament MVP, heated up in the fourth, scoring eight points to keep Punxsy in the mix.
Despite Triponey's hot hand, Punxsy still trailed by three with three minutes left.
"When you get down two or three points, it's tough," Neal said. "But just like we did against Brookville (Dec. 16), we stuck with it and maintained our composure. We forced a couple shots, but for the most part we played within ourselves. We didn't need everything all at once, and we're getting better at realizing that."
A Mancuso floater with two minutes to play cut the lead to one, and after a miss by Clarion sharp-shooter Roland Shannonhouse, Geer added the go-ahead basket.
"A couple weeks ago, after the Redbank Valley game, we talked about throwing young kids into the fire, and it came about tonight," Neal said. "Cory wanted the ball in his hands. He was flashing to the ball, and even the one time he was called for a travel, he was going to the hoop with authority. He wanted the ball, and he attacked the ball when the whistle blew. He's just getting better all the time."
Neal also noted that there were a few players who stood out on the court that may not have stood out as much with a quick glance at the box score.
"I wanted to mention Garrett Zimmerman and Luke Janocha, too," he said. "We got some good post touches tonight. They gave us 10 points we haven't always been getting. Their rebounds and points were big. It was a total team win. If they weren't scoring, they were playing good defense, and that's exactly what it takes to win."
After the game, the All-Tournament team was announced and included Zach Smith from Smethport, and Nick Lamantia, who led Marion Center to a 56-53 comeback win in the boys' consolation game.
Clarion's nods for the All-Tourney team were Shannonhouse, who put up 29 against Marion Center Wednesday night, and Antonio Troese, who scored 21 Thursday to earn the game's high-scorer spot.
Punxsy's Mancuso was named to the All-Tournament team, as well, amassing 24 points over the two games, and Triponey was named the tournament MVP for his 18 points and his defensive play.
Earlier in the day, Punxsy's JV squad earned a 59-44 win over Marion Center with a balanced scoring attack, including seven three-pointers.
Punxsy was led by Tyler Young, who scored 20 points to set the pace.
Devin Nicholson added 14, Cory Geer chipped in with 10, and Clayton Dale had nine for the winners.
Michael Klingensmith had five points, and Matt Burkett wrapped up the scoring with one.
Punxsy head coach Darrin Kriebel said he liked what he saw from his squad, adding it was a good way to set the tone for the championship game.
Punxsy's next matchup is against DuBois Central Catholic Tuesday night in DuBois. Although the Cardinals are a dismal 1-7, Neal said their record is definitely deceiving.
JVs will tip off at 6 p.m. and the varsity contest will follow.