Defensive excellence carries Franklin Regional boys into WPIAL final

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018 | 8:45 PM


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Franklin Regional has exactly zero field goals in the fourth quarter of its last two playoff wins.

Let that sink in.

On the verge of playing in their first WPIAL boys basketball championship game in 21 years, the Panthers have scored a total of 17 points in the final frames of victories over Moon in the quarterfinals and Highlands in the semifinals — 16 minutes of basketball — all on free throws.

They won by a combined 10 points.

That they got this far comes off second to how they got here.

Think the third-seeded Panthers (20-4) are worried about their offense as they prepare to face No. 1 Mars (20-4) Friday night in the WPIAL Class 5A title game at Pitt's Petersen Events Center?

“I don't care if we don't make a field goal the whole game Friday, as long as we make enough foul shots to win,” Franklin Regional coach Steve Scorpion said. “At this point, you just find a way to win. It's like the 30 For 30: survive and advance. If we score two points a quarter and win 8-6, who cares?”

Franklin Regional also isn't worried about what anyone thinks of it. A blue-collar bunch, focused on playing smothering defense and outworking teams, the Panthers just want to get the job done.

Appearance is secondary. Approach and execution are everything.

In a closet full of three-piece suits, Franklin Regional is a balled-up hoodie and sweats.

“You hear the stereotypes about Murrysville and Franklin Regional,” said Scorpion, a Panthers alum and the program's third all-time-leading scorer. “People think about a lot of money and mansions out here, like we're Fox Chapel or some place like that. We have hoodies-and-shorts kind of kids. We have kids who want to work hard and play together. You have to have a little dog in you. I am not toeing the line of being dirty, but you have to get after it.”

The afterglow of Tuesday's 48-40 win over Section 3 rival Highlands loomed at Wednesday's practice, the first hour of which the team spent on defensive slides and drills.

“I know none of us slept too well last night, but it started to set in at school,” senior guard Nate Leopold said. “This is so big for everyone in our community.

“With the way we play defense, we believe we can stop anyone.”

The Panthers, who have won nine straight games, have shown the ability to change up styles all season. They have run with teams, slowed into half-court sets and fired away from deep. They put up 83 points in a game and 75 in another, but also scored 52 and 45, the common denominator being that they won all of them.

And how about that Moon game in the quarters? The 28-26 win was more missed shots than molasses, a test of patience and the ultimate win-is-a-win game.

“People look at that game and think we held the ball,” Panthers senior Hunter Stonecheck said. “Moon is a very good defensive team too. We're not worried about (the offense). We know how we can play. We'll be just fine.”

Senior-led Franklin Regional allows just 46.6 points and has limited its last three opponents to 29, 26 and 40 points. It held Perry to 29, Highlands to 46 and Gateway to 36.

Adjusting on the fly has worked all season. Getting a feel for when to change things up has been a steady adaptation for Scorpion, who still wasn't sure Wednesday how he plans to attack Mars' star guard Robby Carmody, a Notre Dame recruit and the WPIAL's leading scorer at more than 33 points per game.

“We play a certain way because that's what we needed to play,” Scorpion said. “If people don't like it, don't come to the games.

“When you get the kids to buy into defense, you can do a lot of things.”

Neither Franklin Regional nor Mars has championship clout.

The Panthers reached the finals in 1996 and ‘97, losing to Upper St. Clair and New Castle, respectively. Mars has never been to the WPIAL finals, although the Planets did play in the PIAA title game in 2016.

Scorpion was as eighth grader sitting high atop the floor at Duquesne's A.J. Palumbo Center in '97. He did not get to experience the WPIAL playoffs as a varsity player because the Panthers did not qualify during his four years.

“I have a lot of genuine school pride,” Scorpion said. “My parents and my grandfather (Dick Groat) never let me get cocky and always taught be to be humble. These kids need to stop and appreciate this opportunity. Who knows if it will ever happen here again?”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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

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