EBENSBURG - Bishop Carroll Catholic High School boys basketball coach Cosie Aliquo figured that one of the keys to his team making it to the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference championship game this year would lie in the Huskies sweeping their season series with archrival Penn Cambria.
Carroll completed both jobs on its home floor before a packed gymnasium Wednesday night, trimming the Panthers, 67-58.
Carroll, which won the first matchup of the two teams, 56-45 at Penn Cambria Jan. 18, improved to 18-3 overall and finished tops in the conference's Section I with a 9-1 record. The Huskies will face Bishop McCort in the league championship game Saturday night at Richland High School.
McCort punched its ticket to the title game as Section II champions by beating Johnstown, 45-42, Wednesday night.
"I've been here six years, and we've never been close,'' Aliquo said of Carroll's first appearance in the LHAC championship game during his coaching tenure there. "We knew that to get to the championship game, we would have to beat Penn Cambria twice. That's a heck of a task, because they're one heck of a team.''
Carroll's victory Wednesday held all the intensity of a late-round playoff game, and several Huskies came up big to offset a superb 37-point, game-high performance by Penn Cambria's 6-foot-7 star senior post A.J. Leahey.
Senior forward Scott Ranck led Carroll with 23 points, while sophomore guard Brandon Martinazzi chipped in 17.
Junior guard David Maruca added 11 points, including a big 3-pointer that ignited a pivotal 14-2 run for Carroll late in the third quarter that allowed the Huskies to gain the upper hand.Junior forward Marcus Lee had a team-high eight rebounds to go with his eight points for Carroll, which converted 22 of 28 free throws - including 15 of 20 with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.
"We practice free throws every day in practice, and everybody stepped up tonight,'' Aliquo said. "Everybody can take a piece of this one. Everybody did a good job.''
Penn Cambria (17-4 overall and 7-3 in Section I) battled gamely all night, but Leahey was forced to carry more than his share of the scoring load.
"He was unbelievable,'' Penn Cambria coach Jim Ronan said of Leahey, who also snared a game-high 13 rebounds. "We don't like it when has to score all those points, but unfortunately, that's the route we had to take tonight. He never backs down from a challenge.''
Senior forward Devin Lawhead had 13 points for Penn Cambria, which didn't get much scoring from anybody else.
"Devin Lawhead had a nice game, and we fought hard in a hostile environment tonight,'' Ronan said. "But a key to the game was that our secondary scoring wasn't there. We had to rely on A.J. a little bit too much.''
After Leahey's putback tied the game, 35-35 with 4:58 left in the third quarter, Carroll staged its 14-2 run to gain some separation entering the fourth quarter. Junior guard Mitchell Madonna hit two free throws to put the Huskies up, 37-35, before Maruca buried a big 3-pointer from the left-wing extension to give Carroll a 40-35 lead.
After two Lawhead free throws for Penn Cambria made it 40-37, Ranck hit a 3-pointer from the deep upper left side and a jumper from the top of the key to put Carroll up, 45-37. Martinazzi drained another jumper from the top of the key, before hitting a pair of technical foul shots with 35 seconds left to give Carroll a 49-37 lead after three quarters.
''We got a little bit of a spree there, and that was big going into the fourth quarter,'' Aliquo said.
Ranck expected a dogfight from a talented Penn Cambria team.
"They're a great team,'' Ranck said of the Panthers. "They're very well-coached, and beating them is a confidence-booster for us. We made some big jump shots all night.''
Penn Cambria whittled its deficit to as low as six points, 56-50, on Leahey's rebound bucket with 2:50 left in the game.
But Carroll responded to the push down the stretch, as Maruca and Madonna both hit one of two free throws and Martinazzi drained a 3-pointer before converting all four free throws he attempted in the final minute.
"Carroll played a great game,'' Ronan said. "They shot the ball extremely well. They did a little bit more than we did to come out with the victory.''
With the District 6 playoffs starting next week, Aliquo felt that a stiff test like Wednesday's could only benefit his team.
"Win or lose a game like this one, it's going to help us,'' he said.
Game notes: Penn Cambria held a 36-19 advantage in rebounds ... Carroll also won the junior varsity game, 50-35, behind 10 points from Nik Suckinos. Zach Chirdon had a game-high 13 points for Penn Cambria's jayvees.
PENN CAMBRIA (58): Behe 2 0-2 4, Keagy 0 0-0 0, Lawhead 5 3-5 13, Leahey 14 5-7 37, J. Mardula 0 0-0 0, Tsikalas 0 1-2 1, M. Mardula 1 0-0 3, Bastian 0 0-0 0. Totals - 22 9-16 58.
BISHOP CARROLL (67): Maruca 3 4-6 11, Madonna 1 6-8 8, Lee 3 2-4 8, Ranck 9 2-2 23, Martinazzi 4 8-8 17, Suckinos 0 0-0 0. Totals - 20 22-28 67.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Penn Cambria9 20 8 21 - 58
Bishop Carroll14 18 17 18 - 67
3-point goals: Penn Cambria 5 (Leahey 4, M. Mardula); Bishop Carroll 5 (Ranck 3, Maruca, Martinazzi).
Records: Penn Cambria (17-4, 7-3 in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference Section I); Bishop Carroll (18-3, 9-1 in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference Section I).
Officials: Brad Eckroth, Dan Amerhein, Dave Mattis.