After tough losses, Mt. Pleasant boys turn it up in time for playoffs

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Thursday, February 18, 2021 | 6:25 PM


Mt. Pleasant had just surrendered a six-point, fourth-quarter lead against Jeannette and took a gut-punch.

Jayhawks 32, Vikings 30.

The Vikings did not score in the final period.

That game, although nonsection, would have been a nice feather in their collective cap, but instead left them wrung out and looking for answers.

“That was our come-to-Jesus moment, if you will,” Vikings first-year boys basketball coach TJ Kravits said. “We gave away two games in the fourth quarter. The other was against Charleroi. We’re a senior team and with (senior-laden) teams, that doesn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen.”

Something must have clicked just then for Mt. Pleasant, which won three straight to move within a game of .500 at 6-7.

The reward for the team’s late-season push is a WPIAL Class 4A playoff spot. All WPIAL teams can enter the postseason this year because the district opted for an open tournament due to unbalanced records and games played — thanks, covid-19.

Mt. Pleasant toyed with opting out of the playoffs, but its play of late made the decision to go easier.

It has been an odd season for Mt. Pleasant: highs and lows, close calls and stretches of sound, team basketball. There have even been highlights to replay at the banquet: Lucas Toohey tossing the ball off the backboard to Jonas King, who two-handed a powerful dunk. The handful of fans allowed in the gym ooh-ed and aah-ed.

“Every once in a while, they’ll do something like that and I’ll say, ‘Oh my goodness’,” said Kravits, a former coach at Marion Center. “That was one of those moments.”

While the offseason lacked continuity and bonding with a new coach getting to know his players — it would be easy to chalk it up to a “covid year” — the Vikings are not making excuses.

“I think maybe the message resonated with our guys,” Kravits said. “We’re in games and competing better. I expect them to be able to close out games more.”

TJ Kravits sounds more like singer Lenny Kravitz when he talks about his team’s knack for hanging around in the fourth quarter.

“But baby, it ain’t over till it’s over …”

“We need to take better care of the ball in the fourth quarter, in those critical moments,” Kravits said. “I am big on defense. It’s about effort and mindset. And we need to make our free throws. I don’t know why that has become a problem for us.”

Mt. Pleasant, which has seven seniors, was averaging just under 50 points a game at the start of the week, while allowing 47.5. It has been outscoring teams in the fourth, which is a positive sign. And the Vikings are shooting 48% from the field in the final eight minutes of games.

“Recently we have done a great job of playing well together,” said senior guard Nate Kubasky, the team’s leading scorer with a 12.2-point average. “No one has been selfish, and we’re just willing to do what’s needed to win.”

Mt. Pleasant was hard to figure early. It only scored 17 points in a season-opening blowout loss to McKeesport, dropped a 59-57 loss to Charleroi, won two in a row, then lost four straight. One of the losses was to top-ranked Belle Vernon, but the others were tight: 50-48 against South Park, and 58-54 to Elizabeth Forward.

The Vikings beat Class 6A Greensburg Salem, lost to Class 2A contender Jeannette, then beat Southmoreland, Uniontown and Derry to take over fourth place in Section 3-4A.

So, after all of that, what is Mt. Pleasant’s identity?

“We are a team that hustles you out of the gym,” Kubasky said, “We always take the extra step and sacrifice to get a shot … dish it to an open man. We finally have the chemistry we need.”

King and fellow senior Jacob Bungard (6-4) have formed a formidable frontcourt duo to complement the guards. Senior Tyler Salvatore and Toohey handle the ball.

King averages 11.5 points and 11.1 rebounds.

“I feel that everyone was sick of losing close games and continuing not to play to our potential,” King said. “In that aspect, we have definitely turned it up, so to speak. I also think our defense has significantly improved since the beginning of the season, and once you start playing good D, the scoring will follow.”

Basketball isn’t the first sport for most of the players. Four of the seniors are soccer players. King is headed to Mercyhurst to play football.

“Which helps a lot in our conditioning and athletic ability,” Kubasky said.

Kubasky did not play basketball last year. Why? He was on the wrestling team.

Toohey and Salvatore will play soccer together at Westminster.

“We don’t have a lot of basketball guys,” Kravits said. “But we have had different guys step up at different times, and that’s what you need to happen, especially in the playoffs.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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