By Dave Seamon
SALEM TWP. >> Ronald Reagan was always fond of saying “dance with the one that brung ya.’’
Coaches have been to preach it, too, as a way to stay fervently loyal to the beliefs and system that made them, even in the most pressure-packed situations.
The Hazleton Area boys’ basketball team certainly didn’t deviate from its tried-and-true formula for success for its PIAA Class 6A opening round playoff game against Norristown on Saturday before a packed house at Berwick Varsity Gymnasium.
The Cougars (24-1) knocked down all five of their 3-point attempts in the first quarter, built a double-digit lead that was never really in danger of being overcome, used its superior length to disrupt the Eagles’ attack and finally turned its high-flying act loose in the second half.
The result was a 62-45 victory for Hazleton Area, its first win in the state tournament since 2014, and a Round of 16 matchup with Pocono Mountain West, a 53-52 winner over Chambersburg, also on Saturday.
“We just wanted to come out and put on a show for these fans because they’ve been so loyal to us,’’ said the Cougars’ Joey Grula, who led all scorers with 19 points, including nine on three triples in the first quarter alone. “It seemed like there were all Cougar fans in here. … It was crazy.’’
Just like they did against Scranton in the District 2/4 Subregional final one week earlier, the Cougars came out sizzling.
Grula’s first three put his team ahead to stay (5-2) less than two minutes into the game. By the time the first quarter was over, he drained two more and teammates Josh Samec and Jeff Planutis added one apiece as Hazleton Area grabbed a 17-6 lead.
“That was the goal … to come out here and be the main puncher instead of taking (a shot) from them,’’ Planutis said . “Coach (Mike Joseph) wanted us to come out and be the bullies.’’
Mission accomplished, for the Eagles never really could escape from the corner, though they tried.
“Hazleton’s always a tough team, but this year they pose even more of a significant threat because they’re so multi-dimensional … and can hurt you in so many different ways,’’ Norristown head coach Dana “Binky’’ Johnson said. “I told my guys that this is one of those teams, if you’re playing them, you have to play mistake-free ball to beat them.’’
The Cougars committed their share of mistakes in the second quarter, committing five turnovers and cooling down somewhat from the field.
Norristown, meanwhile, got seven points from Mikeel Allen and four by Darius Hopewell to cut into Hazleton Area’s lead. A Tyler Lyons triple closed the gap to 27-22 with still 2:12 left before halftime, but Da’mir Faison quickly answered with own three to make it an eight-point game at the break.
“We absolutely want to start fast and try to get ourselves going offensively,’’ Joseph said. “I thought we did a great job of recognizing stuff early (but) then we got away from that for about four five minutes in the second quarter. I though we left some points off the board.’’
Defensively, however, Hazleton Area’s 6-foot-8 Samec, 6-5 Faison, 6-5 Grula and 6-5 Planutis protected the rim and the Cougars’ lead with a vengeance.
Their offense cranked back up in the third quarter, as Planutis’ acrobatic tip-in and his full-court feed to Samec for a layup and Faison’s first two of his nine consecutive free throws, a Grula stickback, Scotty Shamany’s deuce off a nifty assist from Ryan
Sparky’’ Wolk and Planutis’ steal and breakaway jam extended the Cougars’ advantage to 42-26 and elicited a loud roar from the overwhelmingly Hazleton Area crowd.
“When you have the type of length that they do, they create a lot of issues,’’ Johnson said. “Then they’re so basketball savvy, which I like and respect, and they’re so well-coached. It’s actually a pleasure competing against a team like that.’’
Baskets by Hopewell and Lyons to end the third quarter and Allen’s two free throws to start the final period, got the Eagles (18-10) as close as 42-32, but Faison’s old-fashioned three-point play and his dunk off another eye-catching feed from Wolk almost immediately retrieved the Cougars’ 15-point cushion.
Unlike the subregional title game in which Scranton pressed the Cougars into trouble in the late stages of their 61-51 win, Hazleton Area handled Norristown’s full-court pressure with relative ease, resulting in layups or Cougar players drawing fouls. They made enough free throws down the stretch to build a safe enough lead for Joseph to empty his bench and let the starters earn a rousing ovation.
“Our press break was one of the things we really worked on a lot in practice this week because Scranton gave us fits with it,’’ Planutis said. “We were able to handle it this week.’’
“We again had four guys in double figures,’’ Joseph said. “‘Sparky’ threw some tremendous passes in key moments when the floor was spread and things were getting a little crazy, our guys took the ball really hard to the basket and had some great finishes, we made our free throws. … and I thought we defended and rebounded the ball well.’’
All together, it sounds like the perfect partner for the PIAA’s “Big Dance.’’
Don’t expect the Cougars to change theirs anytime soon.
In the meantime, Norristown expects to be back in the PIAA’s “Big Dance’’ in the near future.
“We’re young and hungry,’’ Johnson said. “The fact that they bought into our core values — play smart and play together — is a plus.’’
A perfect “Dance’’ partner.
As Hazleton Area could attest.
Hazleton 62, Norristown 45
NORRISTOWN (45) — Tubbs 3 1-2 7, Lyons 3 0-0 8, Williams 1 1-2 4, Dorman 1 1-2 3, Hopewell 3 0-0 6, Allen 6 3-4 15, Anderson 0 0-0 0, Tate 0 0-0 0, Kinney 1 0-0 2. Totals 18 6-11 45.
HAZLETON AREA (62) — Samec 3 0-0 7, Vayda 0 1-2 1, Wolk 0 0-0 0, Planutis 6 2-4 15, D’Angelo 0 0-0 0, Franek 0 0-0 0, Grula 7 2-2 19, Moronta 0 0-0 0, Otero 1 0-0 2, Shamany 1 0-0 2, Norman 0 0-0 0, Melendez 0 0-0 0, Faison 3 9-11 16, Seigendall 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 14-19 62.
Norr (18-10) 6 16 8 15 — 45
HA (24-1) 17 13 12 20 — 62
3-point FGs: Lyons 2, Williams, Grula 3, Samec, Planutis, Faison.
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