Franklin Regional tops section rival Highlands to advance to WPIAL title game

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 | 10:15 PM

Franklin Regional coach Steve Scorpion didn't believe his team ever got in a counterpunch during a Section 3-5A loss to Highlands last month.

In a rematch Tuesday with a trip to Petersen Events Center on the line, the Panthers landed the knockout blow.

A lockdown defense and clutch free throws late in the fourth quarter lifted No. 3 Franklin Regional to a 48-40 victory over No. 2 Highlands in a WPIAL Class 5A semifinal at Fox Chapel.

“They gave us everything we could handle and then some,” Scorpion said. “It was just our night tonight. My kids did a great job defending, and I think we did a great job of taking away their three inside guys. This was really a team effort.”

The first two meetings between the section rivals ended in a pair of blowouts, with each team winning on its home floor. The rubber match came down to the wire.

Franklin Regional led by as many as 10 points in the second half, but Highlands twice cut Franklin Regional's lead to a point in the fourth quarter before falling short as the Panthers shot 15 of 21 from the free-throw line in the final period.

“When it got close, I think we fouled a couple times that was not needed,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “We need to be smarter. We left them off the hook at times, I thought, in the second half when we were making our run. It's just a point in the game where you've got to be smarter and you've got to buckle down.”

Franklin Regional (20-4) advanced to the WPIAL championship game for the first time since 1997. The Panthers, seeking their first title, will play No. 1 Mars at 9 p.m. Friday.

Highlands will await the start of the PIAA playoffs, where the Golden Rams will be the third or fourth seed from the WPIAL.

The Panthers reached the Pete because of their second consecutive gritty defensive performance, which helped them overcome a sluggish offensive start.

Franklin Regional came into Tuesday's game allowing 46.9 points per game, the second-best mark in Class 5A. But Highlands nearly doubled that total in the Golden Rams' 87-68 victory last month, a game that led the Panthers to re-evaluate their defensive effort.

They've won nine consecutive games since and have allowed a combined 66 points in playoff victories over Moon and Highlands … even as their own offense scored 76.

“We wanted to bring a new energy to the game, and we did,” senior Nate Leopold said. “That's pretty good defense. That's how we want to play basketball.”

A 20-2 spurt during the second and third quarters made the difference. Franklin Regional held Highlands (19-5) scoreless for 5 minutes, 47 seconds during that run, helping to turn a 12-4 deficit into a 24-14 lead.

“Their zone hurt us a little bit, and we just didn't move the ball,” said Stoczynski, whose team was seeking its second WPIAL championship game appearance in three seasons. “We just weren't us tonight offensively. We didn't share the ball like we usually share it.”

Early on, Highlands' defense reigned. The Golden Rams held Franklin Regional scoreless for nearly the first seven minutes of the game, with Leopold's driving layup with just over a minute remaining keeping the Panthers from a first-quarter goose egg.

But unlike the January meeting, when Highlands got off to a scorching offensive start and never looked back, Franklin Regional's defense did more than enough to keep the game close Tuesday until the offense got things going in the second quarter.

Although Shawn Erceg scored 10 points for Highlands in the first half on five nearly identical post layups, the remainder of the Golden Rams' lineup combined for four points. That gave Franklin Regional the opportunity to take the lead into halftime: The Panthers closed the first half on a 13-2 run, with Hunter Stonecheck's off-balance jumper getting a friendly bounce at the buzzer to give them a 17-14 advantage at the break.

“We punched them back and continued to go, and that was the difference,” Scorpion said. “We didn't just take it. We gave it back, and then continued to go. Then they were playing catch-up instead of us playing catch-up.”

Highlands almost did catch up. Christian Tanilli hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 34-33 with 4:13 remaining, and Romello Freeman's driving layup made it 36-35 after a pair of Leopold free throws. But the Panthers held the Golden Rams to one field goal the rest of the way.

Nick Leopold scored a game-high 16 points for Franklin Regional, shooting 12 of 12 from the free-throw line — including 10 of 10 in the final quarter. Nate Leopold added 13 points. Erceg scored 16 points to lead Highlands, and Freeman added 11.

“We know we're a special group, and we just had to prove it,” Nate Leopold said.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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