Despite defensive shadow, Rodney Gallagher leads Laurel Highlands into PIAA quarterfinals

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023 | 11:50 PM


Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger’s practices can include some junk defenses, maybe a diamond-and-one or triangle-and-two, but the Mustangs don’t use them in games.

Instead, he wants his offense to solve them.

Rodney Gallagher faced one of those combination schemes Tuesday night and still scored a game-high 28 points as Laurel Highlands counted on the senior’s elusiveness to defeat Hampton, 57-50, in the second round of the PIAA Class 4A playoffs at Norwin.

“We rep stuff like that all week, so coach did a good job of preparing us for it,” Gallagher said. “Our guys in practice did a really good job of giving us a look. We repped it, repped it, repped it.”

Hampton used a one-three chaser with four players in a zone and the fifth shadowing Gallagher around the court. The point guard scored enough to win and surpass the 2,000-point career milestone, but the Talbots’ game plan almost worked.

Hampton (24-4) held a one-point lead with six minutes left before the Talbots then turned the ball over on three straight possessions. Gallagher and Keondre DeShields responded with six consecutive points, the first four on transition layups to retake the lead.

DeShields scored 16 points.

“When you turn it over on them and they get the ball in transition, they’re really, really tough to guard,” Hampton coach Joe Lafko said.

The outcome creates a quarterfinal matchup that Laurel Highlands has desired for weeks. The Mustangs (24-3) will face WPIAL champion Lincoln Park (27-1) on Friday at a site and time to be announced.

The teams were seeded Nos. 1 and 2 in the WPIAL playoffs, but Laurel Highlands was upset in the semifinals.

“We’re very excited about it,” Gallagher said. “We need to come out and be ready to play and get some redemption. We lost to them earlier in the season by four. We just need to make sure we’re ready.”

The teams met Dec. 29 in a tournament at CCBC, and Lincoln Park won 70-66.

“It was very competitive,” Hauger said. “I’m sure they’re a better team than they were then, but I know that we are.”

Laurel Highlands’ two senior stars combined for 44 of their team’s 57 points in Tuesday’s win, but those other 13 points helped foil Hampton’s defense,

“We wanted to try to limit (Gallagher’s) touches,” Lafko said. “When they spread it out with four shooters, that made it more difficult in that defense. They were able to convert and make some big plays.”

A 3-pointer by senior Nathan Schwertfeger in the second quarter and a pair of 3s by senior Blaise Krizner in the third were key.

“When you’re playing this kind of defense, somebody is going to pop open for a shot,” Lafko said.

The game included six lead changes and two ties. Laurel Highlands led 9-8 after the first quarter and 42-40 after the third. Hampton led 25-24 at half.

Hampton’s Liam Mignogna scored a team-high 15 points and senior Eric Weeks had 14. The Talbots’ largest lead was 25-18 in the second quarter, when they best used the size advantage of Mignogna, a 6-foot-8 junior.

Laurel Highlands’ closed the first half with six consecutive points and took a 39-34 lead late in the third on a jumper by Gallagher. Hampton’s Brennan Murray banked in a three-quarters court shot at the third-quarter buzzer to cut the gap to two.

Hampton grabbed a 45-44 lead early in the fourth on a 3-point play by junior Robert Coll. However, once Laurel Highlands retook the later in the quarter, the Mustangs didn’t give it back.

DeShields scored eight points in the fourth quarter and Gallagher had five.

Hampton switched to a trapping defense in the final minutes but largely stuck with the one-three chaser. Despite the defensive attention, Gallagher went 9 for 14 shooting from the field and 6 for 7 from the foul line.

“We did a really good job in practice by getting everyone involved,” Gallagher said, “and giving people a look (at the defense) to make those tough shots in a game.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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