100 years ago, Pa. held its 1st state basketball tournament, but anniversary celebration on hold

Thursday, March 19, 2020 | 5:12 PM

Two thousand fans came to the Armory in State College to watch the first state basketball tournament in Pennsylvania high school history, a historic event from exactly 100 years ago.

Harrisburg Tech won a silver cup and gold medals as the first state tournament champions after defeating WPIAL champion Bellevue, 38-34, in the finals April 10, 1920, according to newspaper reports from that time. Tech won four games in a 24-hour span to become the first PIAA champion.

“Fourteen teams were entered in the championship contest and for the first time in high school basketball history it has been definitely decided who is entitled to the honors,” wrote The (Harrisburg) Courier in the April 11, 1920 edition.

The PIAA wanted to celebrate the 100-year history of its tournament this weekend in Hershey, but those plans were dashed by the coronavirus outbreak. The PIAA finals would have started Thursday and continued through Saturday at Giant Center, but the arena is empty after this year’s tournament was suspended in the second round.

Before the outbreak, PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said the PIAA planned to name honorary team captains for the finals while celebrating some of the state’s all-time great players and coaches. But on March 12, the PIAA announced the playoffs would be suspended for two weeks. As the covid-19 pandemic unfolds, another postponement or cancellation now seems inevitable.

If so, this could be the first time in 100 years that Pennsylvania hasn’t crowned a state boys basketball tournament champion.

Along with Bellevue and Harrisburg Tech, that first state tournament in 1920 included teams from Bellefonte, East Stroudsburg, Farrell, Pittsburgh’s Fifth Avenue, Lansford, Mansfield, Oakmont, Renovo, Shamokin, Sharon, Uniontown and Williamsport.

South Philadelphia High, considered the best team in that city, didn’t take part, but the tournament was well received nonetheless.

“The result of the first scholastic championship series ever held in this state proved most satisfactory and it is quite certain that next season there will be a larger number of entries,” wrote The (Harrisburg) Evening News.

A century later, the PIAA basketball tournament now includes 12 brackets with 32 teams apiece for both boys and girls teams.

The first tournament lasted two days. Harrisburg Tech defeated Oakmont, 35-18, on Friday night, Lansford, 31-12, on Saturday morning and Fifth Avenue, 23-18, on Saturday afternoon.

The championship was Saturday night. Harrisburg led Bellevue, 22-18, at half behind Calvin “Haps” Frank, who finished with five field goals, despite playing on unfamiliar backboards.

“The Tech boys are accustomed to playing with the metal banking boards, whereby bank shots are somewhat easier to make,” wrote The (Harrisburg) Evening News. “The fact that they had to cage practically all their field goals directly through the net did not hinder the Tech tossers to any great extent in landing the two pointers.”

The teams played two 15-minute periods with a 30-minute halftime in between.

“Although outfought and outplayed by Tech, the players of the Western Pennsylvania squad fought valiantly to the finish,” wrote the The (Harrisburg) Evening News.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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