WEXFORD – Grove City wasn’t supposed to win Tuesday. Just don’t tell the Eagles that.
Grove City stunned WPIAL 4A champion Highlands 45-38 in the nightcap of a girls-boys PIAA tournament doubleheader at North Allegheny High School.
“We never thought we were the underdogs,” senior Spencer Pokrant said. “We knew what we could do. We just believed in ourselves and knew we could get the win as long as we played together and played hard. It’s been a long time since Grove City’s made it to this point. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point and our effort is paying off.”
With the win, Grove City (18-9) advances to the PIAA Elite Eight for the first time since 2007 and will get arch-rival Hickory for the fourth time this year on Friday at a site and time TBD.
The Hornets (23-4) downed the Eagles 78-51 at The Nest on Dec. 18, 57-42 at The Hive on Jan. 23 and 70-42 at SRU for the District 10 title just under two weeks ago.
“Wouldn’t this be considered the Western Finals since Grove City and Hickory are pretty much the only teams left from the western half of the state in 4A,” Grove City Coach Chris Kwolek said with a sly smile. “Everyone else is out East. This is something special with all the adversity we’ve dealt with from my shoulder injury (in the preseason) and the injuries we battled throughout the year.
“I don’t want to say we’ve reached our goal, but we made it a goal to reach this point. We know if we’re playing Hickory for a fourth time in a season that we’ve had one heck of a basketball season. So we’re going to enjoy this tonight and see what else we can do, because we’ve thrown everything we can at Hickory in the past couple of games.
After using a strong third quarter to sneak past District 6 titlist Bedford on Friday, Grove City took over the fourth against Highlands on Tuesday.
Down 30-26 to start the final 8 minutes, Danny Timko converted an and-one to kickstart a 13-2 run that featured 2 key buckets from sophomore Dylan Stull to hand the Eagles the lead at 39-32 on a Kade Persinger transition bucket with 2:07 left. It was Grove City’s first lead since 2-0 early in the first.
“I’m trying to play that sequence back in my head and I think a lot of that was done defensively,” Kwolek said. “We held them to 16 second-half points and were able to keep the game within our reach. We knew how versatile and explosive they can be on offense.
“They almost let us stick to our gameplan by not coming out and pressuring us or denying. When they finally came up and pressured us, our 4 point guards – I consider Persinger, Brooks, Loughry and Stull all point guards – were able to break the pressure with ease. That helped really us during that run.”
The Golden Rams (23-4) weren’t going down quietly though, sinking three’s on back-to-back possessions to cut Grove City’s lead to 39-38 with 1:13 left to play.
“We went on that run to start the fourth quarter, but they hit the two 3’s ... those were great shots,” Grove City senior Troy Loughry said. “After they called the timeout there, we came over to the bench and said ‘Guys, we still got this! This is still our game ... this is what we’ve worked for all week.’ We were encouraging each other and our bench was great with their encouragement.”
After Highlands star Johnny Crise missed a pair of freebies with 36 seconds left that would’ve allowed the Rams to retake the lead, Stull, Michael Brooks and Persinger each sank 2 free throws over a 25-second span to seal the deal for the Eagles.
“Those were big-time free throws absolutely,” Kwolek said. “Those are 3 point guards that we trust in all aspects of the game.”
Despite an 8-0 Highlands run early, Grove City withstood its own frigid 1 for 9 start from the field and only trailed by 7 after the first. The Eagles closed the first half on a 7-2 run to pull within 22-17 at the half.
“I looked up at the scoreboard at one point and thought are we going to score on these guys?” Kwolek remembered. “Kade hit a three to make it 10-5 and I wanted a timeout there, because the game wasn’t getting out of hand but I wanted to check ourselves to say the shots we were getting were OK they just weren’t falling. We noticed they were switching on a lot of the screens, so we needed to cut a little harder and make our flashes back towards the basketball.”
Persinger (17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists), Timko (12 points and 3 rebounds) and Stull (11) all reached double figures for the Eagles – who finished with just 9 turnovers.
“We deserved this win,” Loughry said. “We’ve worked our butts off in practice these past two weeks. Our coaches did a great job of preparing us for this moment and we did a great job of executing that gameplan. We did a great job on defense and scored when we needed to. We had people telling us all week that they were filling those guys in (on their brackets) to play Hickory. All week, we said we were going to beat those guys and we went and did it tonight!
“Dylan Stull is only a sophomore, but he stepped up big down the stretch for us. Michael Brooks has been awesome these past two weeks guarding the other team’s best player.”
Notes: Grove City improved to 6-4 in the second round of the PIAA playoffs. ... Highlands fell to 7-8 in the state tournament and 0-3 against Mercer County teams in the dance. ... Crise led the Golden Rams with 13 points and 9 rebounds, while Korry Myers lent 10 tallies. ... GC went 15-of-46 from the field and 11-of-12 from the line. ... Highlands went 15 for 41 from the field, but 4 for 12 from the sun stripe. ... The Golden Rams has 13 turnovers and held a 32-22 edge on the glass.
PIAA PLAYOFFS: 2ND ROUND
GROVE CITY 7 10 9 19 45
HIGHLANDS 14 8 8 8 38
GROVE CITY — Brooks 0-2-3-2, Stull 3-4-4-11, Pokrant 0-0-0-0, Timko 5-1-1-12, Persinger 6-4-4-17, Hostetler 0-0-0-0, Knouse 0-0-0-0, Loughry 1-0-0-3. 3-pt goals: Stull 1, Timko 1, Persinger 1, Loughry 1. Totals: 15-11-12-45.
HIGHLANDS — Crise 6-1-6-13, Myers 4-0-0-10, Cochran 2-2-2-7, Kunst 2-0-1-4, McDaniel 1-0-0-3, Roman 0-1-2-1, Leri 0-0-0-0. 3-pt goals: Myers 2, McDaniel 1, Cochran 1. Totals: 15-4-11-38.