Despite heart-breaking ending, Belle Vernon boys basketball proud of effort

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 | 7:08 PM

After 48 minutes of basketball, Belle Vernon senior forward Jared Hartman was so emotionally wrung out and exhausted, he collapsed to the court and just sat there in a daze.

He was numb after playing in a game for the ages.

“I have never been a part of something like that,” Hartman said after Belle Vernon ended up on the wrong side of an epic 84-82, four-overtime game against Lancaster Catholic on Tuesday night in the second round of the PIAA playoffs.

The Class 4A game at Altoona will go down as a classic in Belle Vernon program history — maybe tournament history — even though the Leopards fell just short to finish a banner season at 20-8.

“I will always remember how hard everyone battled that whole game,” Leopards senior guard Hunter Ruokonen said. “Nobody ever showed a bit of doubt. We don’t give up. It was easily the most exciting game I played in, with the four OTs and with the back-and-forth. Energy-wise, the fans were into it, our bench was — couldn’t ask for any more.”

Eight players scored in double figures, and four key Belle Vernon players — Hartman, senior forward Mitch Poulot, sophomore guard Devin Whitlock and senior forward Thomas Hepple — fouled out in the extra time.

Strapped with the shortened lineup against a taller opponent, the Leopards kept attacking.

“They fought tooth and nail, and we never quit,” Leopards coach Joe Salvino said.

Lancaster Catholic (25-3), the District 3 champion, finally went ahead for good when junior guard Devin Atkinson made two free throws with 2.6 seconds left in the fourth extra period.

The Crusaders outscored Belle Vernon, 6-4, in the final OT.

Atkinson tied Hartman with a game-high 26 points. Coaches, players and fans were trumpeting the praises of Hartman after the final horn — a horn reminiscent of the one that used to sound at the old A.J. Palumbo Center at Duquesne. This game surely had championship energy.

Poulot said, “The most memorable things from that game were Jared Hartman’s great performance, the team effort, never giving up, and being a Mon-Valley team that stuck with the supposed No. 2 team in the state for four overtime periods.”

It was a career game for Hartman, who doubles as the Leopards quarterback and helped lead the football team to the WPIAL finals in November.

Hartman, who hit four 3-pointers and took the scoring reins when Whitlock fouled out, said his feelings about the game are twofold. The team captain showed his ball-handling skills, bringing the ball up the floor on several possessions and showing out against Lancaster’s top defenders.

“On the negative side, I’ll remember when I fouled out and what I could’ve done different,” Hartman said. “On the positive side, I’ll always remember the step-back 3 I hit with like 30 seconds left, and we were down one (in the third OT). It will stick with me forever. I’ve honestly never hit a shot like that in a game. It was incredible, and I’m so thankful for it.”

Junior Jake Haney made four 3s and finished with 15 points, and Hepple also gave the Leopards a spark off the bench with 14 points — seven after regulation. Whitlock added 14 and 10 assists.

Belle Vernon and Lancaster Catholic exchanged the lead 16 times and were deadlocked nine times before their marathon thriller ended.

“With those kind of games, when you lose, it hurts the most,” Ruokonen said. “I think we all were conditioned enough to play and none of us were tired. It just didn’t end in our favor, and that’s the worst.”

Salvino took over Belle Vernon last year, and the team won just seven games. But after his system and structure took root, the Leopards took off.

Whitlock, a 1,000-point scorer in just two seasons, transferred in from Monessen, where Salvino coached for 34 years and won six WPIAL titles and two PIAA championships.

Belle Vernon made the WPIAL finals for the first time since 1978 and won a PIAA playoff game for the first time since ‘81. There will be plenty of time to reflect on an unforgettable season for the seniors.

“I think it will be a thing that I will understand and realize the significance of in maybe a year from now,” Poulot said.

The Leopards had not reached 20 wins since 2001.

“The journey has been fantastic,” Salvino said. “Everyone has been a part of that journey. I couldn’t ask for better kids. This group has given the program a direction. This team left a legacy for our program, and I am so proud of them. We’re really going to miss this group.”

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


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