Free-throw shooting, defense lead Central Valley boys over Burrell

Thursday, March 4, 2021 | 8:36 PM

Solid free-throw shooting and a strong presence on the defensive boards proved to be the difference as Central Valley posted a 51-37 victory over Burrell in a WPIAL Class 4A first-round game.

Senior guard Brandon Graham scored 22 points and was 13 of 15 from the free-throw line as the host Warriors broke open a close game by outscoring the Bucs, 15-6, in the third quarter.

Burrell held Central Valley to just 14 field goals, but the Warriors were 21 of 25 from the free-throw line and held the Bucs to four offensive rebounds.

“I thought one of the advantages we had was quickness off the ball,” Central Valley coach Brandon Ambrose said. “Once we got the ball moving, Brandon was able to find some gaps. He’s a senior and a four-year player for us and was able to get to the rim and get to the foul line for us.”

The Warriors, in the playoffs for the ninth time in the school’s 11-year history, are now 11-5 and have advanced to the quarterfinal round against (Montour/Beaver Area).

Burrell (9-10), looking for its first playoff win since the 2013 semifinals against Quaker Valley, started well and led for most of the first half until Central Valley staged a 9-1 run.

“They were a little more physical than us,” Bucs coach Mike Fantuzzo said. “They hit shots, and we didn’t. We went cold there and couldn’t find the bucket.”

Trailing 23-21, the Bucs could muster only two points over a 6-minute, 27-second span of the third quarter as the Warriors built a 36-23 lead.

Central Valley had just five baskets in the first half, but Graham’s confidence in his free-throw shooting was a key factor.

“I think I have about 150 fouls made this season,” Graham said. “Also, we sped them up, ran diamond and they turned the ball over a lot and that helped us.”

Full-court pressure employed by the Warriors bothered the Bucs and forced Fantuzzo to use an early timeout. A steal and a basket by Carson Douglas followed by a 3-pointer from Andre Vacich helped give Central Valley the lead for good late in the half.

“I think Andre’s basket had an impact on the whole group,” Ambrose said. “We haven’t shot the ball well for a bit, and we haven’t seen a lot of those 3s go through. Andre was missing a few for us the last few games, and he was pressing a bit.”

With his team down 36-23, Donovan Callahan stole the ball late in the third quarter, and a strong defensive sequence by the Bucs led to a four-point play as Callahan made a long shot from the corner and hit the free throw to cut the deficit to seven points. But Burrell could make only two field goals the rest of the way.

It was Burrell’s 19th playoff trip, and a postseason berth seemed unlikely a year ago when the Bucs won just once. Fantuzzo, despite Thursday’s loss, is happy with the progress the program is making.

“They’re working hard every day,” the second-year coach said. “We’ve really set a tone with our defense lately. That’s a good team, and we only gave up 51 points to them. We’ve been giving up in the 40s per game, and we’re making that our staple.”

Callahan led the Bucs with 16 points, and Brandon Coury added 14. Coury led Burrell in scoring during the season but had a hard time getting shots to fall, particularly in the second half.

Burrell will return four starters and the first three players off the bench next season as the Bucs return to Class 4A.

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