Eighth-seeded Laurel Highlands rallies past Thomas Jefferson into Class 5A title game

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 | 10:16 PM

Through one half of play Tuesday night, the Thomas Jefferson boys basketball team looked destined to end a nearly 30-year absence from the WPIAL championship game.

Instead, the Jaguars’ opponent found a way to put together a second-half comeback and end a drought of its own.

No. 8 Laurel Highlands rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to secure a dramatic 44-42 victory over No. 4 TJ in the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals at Woodland Hills High School.

The Mustangs (16-8) will play for a WPIAL title for the first time since 1972.

“Our team showed a lot of heart, and that’s what we talked about at halftime, more so than adjustments. A mental refocus (was needed), maybe,” said Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger, whose team outscored TJ, 36-21, in the second half.

“They did not seem to feel like the moment was too big for them. They were down a little bit, but they weren’t discouraged.”

Thomas Jefferson (16-8) led by as many as eight points in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars held that lead at 42-34 with 3:53 left in the game after a pair of big 3-pointers by Noah Pierce, who finished with 13 points.

LH was able to rally, though, thanks in part to the efforts of standout freshman Rodney Gallagher.

Gallagher scored four points during a 10-0 run that spanned the final 3:25 of the game.

Gallagher, who scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, followed up a pair of free throws from Tyvaughn Long and a layup from Tim Smith with a deep jumper that cut TJ’s lead down to 42-40 with under two minutes left.

Gallagher added a jumper following a turnover 59 seconds later to tie the game.

After a missed free throw by Shane Stump, Long sunk 1 of 2 foul shots with 24.6 seconds left, giving LH a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

“You lead the whole game until the last 20 seconds. That’s tough,” Thomas Jefferson coach Dom DeCicco said. “It’s hard to play with the lead, and Gallagher is a heck of a player. We had our chances. We just didn’t make big shots or get big stops when we needed to.”

TJ extended its lead to 15 within the first 14 seconds of the third quarter before Gallagher began to heat up, hitting a pair of jumpers to start a 9-0 Mustangs run that cut the deficit to 23-17 with 5:54 left.

Stump, who netted 13 points in the loss, ended TJ’s two-minute long scoring drought with a shot from the charity stripe before the teams exchanged a bucket.

LH responded by scoring six of the next eight points — four of which came from Gallagher — to make it a 28-25 deficit.

TJ’s lead grew to seven on layups by Ethan Dunsey and Jake Pugh, but Gallagher buried a jumper in the final seconds to pull LH to within five heading into the fourth.

“We knew they were going to make a run,” DeCicco said. “We just had no answer for Gallagher in the second half.”

Laurel Highlands struck first in the opening frame on a jumper and a 1 for 2 showing from the free-throw line by Gallagher.

From then on, though, the quarter belonged entirely to the Jaguars, who finished on a 12-0 run to take a 12-3 lead. LH was held scoreless for the final 6:38 while Stump scored five points and Pierce four for TJ.

Nick Egnot ended LH’s eight-plus minute drought with a bucket at the 6:23 mark of the second quarter before TJ got hot from 3-point range.

Pierce, Ian Hansen and Stump each hit one from beyond the arc during a 9-0 run that extended TJ’s lead to 21-5.

The Jaguars went without a bucket in the final 3:18, but LH could only muster three points during that same span, as TJ held a 21-8 edge at halftime.

“We’ll take off until Sunday, and then we’ll start practicing for the state tournament,” DeCicco said. “Right now, it’s tough, especially for these seniors because they wanted a chance to win a WPIAL championship.”

Laurel Highlands will face off against No. 3 Mars, the two-time defending WPIAL champions, in the title game at 9 p.m. Friday at the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center.

“This means a lot. I’ve been coaching for a long time, but these kids have short careers, so I’m just happy for them and my assistant coaches, John Smith and Dierre Jenkins,” Hauger said. “These guys didn’t quit. Maybe they could have, but they didn’t. That tells me a lot about the kind of guys they are and the kind of team we can be.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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