By Dave Seamon
For Digital First Media
BETHLEHEM >> How dynamic was Hazleton Area’s offense on Saturday?
In the most pressure-packed situtation imaginable?
In the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals?
Against District 1 champion-Abington, the state’s second-ranked big-school team?
In front of a huge crowd at Liberty’s Memorial Gymasnium?
The Galloping Ghosts scored 86 points against the Cougars, a whopping 41 in the fourth quarter.
Abington stars Eric Dixon and Robbie Heath accounted for 35 and 27 points, respectively.
Not enough against this Hazleton Area team.
That’s because Josh Samec poured in a career-high 33 points, Da’mir Faison collected 20, Joey Grula had 19 and Jeff Planutis added 18 as the Cougars outlasted the Ghosts 94-86 to punch their ticket to their state semifinals against Philadelphia Abraham Lincoln, a 77-70 winner over Neshaminy.
“When I looked up the scoreboard after the final buzzer, I couldn’t believe we just scored 94 points,’’ Grula said. “That usually happens in games on the West coast, not the East coast.’’
College and NBA games, maybe. Certainly not a high school game, although Hazleton Area and Abington have been ranked among the state’s top 10 Class 6A teams all season.
Ahead from start to finish, the Cougars (26-1) had the upper hand throughout. They led by as many as 11 points in the first half and 14 in the second to give them enough of a cushion to ward off the Ghosts’ repeated runs.
“Teams think that they can come after us,’’ Hazleton Area head coach Mike Joseph said. “We kind of shredded that (thinking) by the way we passed the basketball.
“I’ve played in a lot of places — including the NCAA tournament (with Bucknell) — but I’ve never been a part of a victory like this,’’ Joseph added. “It was as close to a masterpiece of a game as any I’ve ever been involved in.’’
Samec set the tone with the first of his five 3-pointers to cap the Cougars’ opening possession. Later in the first quarter, Faison (eight) and Grula (six) found enough gaps in Abington’s defense to combine for 14 points, as their team took a 19-13 lead.
“We wanted to come out aggressively and make sure that we did everything possible to get out to an early lead because we knew basketball is a crazy game and sometimes different things happen at the end of games,” Joseph said.
Heath, who finished his four-year varsity career second on Abington’s all-time scoring list, had 10 points in the first quarter to keep the Ghosts within striking distance of the more balanced Cougars.
“We tried to stick with what we do defensively; we felt like we had to play them in man,’’ Ghosts’ coach Charles Grasty said. “We felt they shot the ball really well, so we didn’t want to play any zone against them. … They just got to the rim on us. We broke down defensively a couple times and they capitalized.’’
The Cougars extended their lead to 11 points (24-13) on Ryan “Sparky’’ Wolk’s triple at the 5:25 mark. But JP Nolan’s stickback, Dixon’s free throw and a Lucas Monroe 3-ball got Abington back within 24-19 a little more than a minute later.
As they would all afternoon, the Cougars had an answer as Grula made a spinning layup and Planutis cashed a steal into a breakaway dunk that raised the sound level inside the gymnasium immensely.
Back came the Ghosts (26-6) as Dixon connected from in close and Heath\ had his own jam following a Cougar turnover.
But after a Hazleton Area 30-second timeout, Samec went on a personal seven-point run and Grula canned two foul shots, helping the Cougars rebuild an eight-point advantage. that Heath whittled to 37-32 with three free throws just five seconds efore halftime.
“Dixon is a magnificent player,’’ Joseph said of the Division I college recruit. “Heath also was tremendous, but my guys followed the scouting report to a T. We wanted to make some other guys who have never been on this before make some shots … and for the most part, they didn’t.’’
Indeed, Heath (17) and Dixon (10) teamed for 27 of Abington’s 32 points in the first half.
Hazleton Area, meanwhile, came out firing again after halftime, as Samec’s pullup jumper and then his triple ignited an 11-4 to start the third quarter and stretched the Cougars’ lead to 48-36.
Planutis capped the run with second slam of the afternoon, and the Cougars continued to have every answer for the Ghosts.
“That all came from practicing hard and making sure we were ready for everything that they threw at us,’’ Faison said.
Hazleton Area’s lead stayed in double digits for the remainder of the quarter, with Grula knocking in two more buckets and Faison swishing two from the foul to put their team up 56-45 heading into the final period.
“They were really athletic,’’ Grasty said. “They got to the rim a lot , and they made a ton of shots too. That helps. That’s a good team. they’ve got a lot of good pieces. They are athletic. They’re long. They attack the glass. They jump well. And they play the right way.’’
The fourth quarter nearly lasted as long as the previous three quarters combined as the teams combined for 79 points, 41 by Abington and 38 by Hazleton Area and 40 free throws, 23 by the Cougars and 17 by the Ghosts. Dixon alone scored 18 in the quarter and pulled down a horde of offensive rebounds, but Samec had 15 points, including two clutch triples to keep Abington at bay.
A Faison three with 6:52 left gave the Cougars their largest lead (65-52) of the final quarter. The Ghosts tried to rally behind Dixon after Heath fouled out with 1:28 remaining, but Hazleton Area calmly made enough free throws down the stretch until Grula put the exclamation point on the victory with a two-handed stuff that made it 89-79 with only a minute left.
Thirty-some seconds later, Joseph pulled his starters, bringing the large contingent of Hazleton Area fans to its feet to celebrate the Cougars’ first trip to the state semifinals since 1995.
“This is so awesome,’’ Planutis said. “Coach (Joseph) knew all week what they were gonna do and we knew what we had to do to be successful.’’
The Cougars and Lincoln will play Tuesday evening at at a time and site to be announced today. The winner will meet the Roman
Catholic-Pine Richland survivor for the PIAA Class 6A crown next Saturday at the Giant Center in Hershey.
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