Fusco leads Mars past Milton Hershey in PIAA opening round
By: Dave Mackall
Friday, March 8, 2019 | 9:18 PM
From the Petersen Events Center to Greensburg Salem High School, it was a drastic change in scenery for the WPIAL champion Mars Fightin’ Planets.
No matter, with each game at this stage of the season comes higher stakes, and the Mars boys basketball team was ready once again for a challenge Friday night.
Khori Fusco scored 26 points to lead the Fightin’ Planets to a 74-65 victory over Milton Hershey in a PIAA Class 5A first-round game at Greensburg Salem, sending Mars to a second-round matchup Tuesday with District 3 third-place finisher York William Penn at a site and time to be determined.
The victory comes a week after Mars, the No. 1 PIAA Class 5A team in the Trib HSSN rankings, won its second consecutive WPIAL title in dramatic fashion with a 58-56 victory over Moon at Petersen Events Center on Andrew Recchia’s 3-point shot with 2.6 seconds left.
“I didn’t feel a letdown playing here,” said Fusco, a senior transfer from Clairton. “We all were just trying to get acclimated. It was very dim. It was a weird vibe.”
But it didn’t seem to affect Fusco and his teammates, including Recchia, who scored 17 points for Mars, as they shook loose from Milton Hershey in the third quarter of the teams’ rematch of last season’s PIAA Western Region final, won barely by Mars, 62-61.
Mihali Sfanos added 14 and Michael Carmody chipped in 11 to go with 13 rebounds for Mars (25-1), which extended its winning streak to 20.
“Like we’ve usually been doing, the first half was a time to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said. “In the second half, I thought we finally were able to figure some things out.”
Mars outscored Milton Hershey, 42-35, in the second half but was forced in the closing minutes to stave off the Spartans’ late rush, which included a pair of 3-point shots from reserve forward Natnael Wondwosen that pulled Milton Hershey within 65-58.
“There’s no way to prepare for the way they’re able to play. You just don’t see teams … they’re probably as close to one of those old New Castle teams, with their ability to guard and not have to switch and help because of their athleticism. You can’t simulate that in practice. We can’t, so I think it took our ball-handlers a half to figure it out.”
Mars led Milton Hershey (19-8), the ninth-place team from District 3, 16-15 after the first quarter and 32-30 at halftime in a closely contested first half.
Fusco scored 12 points during a 24-point, third-quarter outburst that saw Mars take a 53-39 lead before settling for 56-44 advantage heading to the fourth.
Mars, which dropped a 67-55 decision to Abington Heights, of District 2, in the 2018 PIAA Class 5A championship game, is trying to get back to the final without last year’s star, Robby Carmody, a freshman guard at Notre Dame.
He is the brother of Michael Carmody, a lineman on the Mars football team, who holds 20 Division I scholarship offers. Both are sons of the Mars coach, who said that, despite Fusco’s arrival at Mars, nobody is considered to be Robby Carmody’s replacement.
“I don’t think anybody has filled the gap,” Rob Carmody said. “I think the team has filled the gap.”
But, it’s performances like Fusco’s on Friday that encourages and comforts Carmody as he coaches each game without his oldest son around to a carry a load.
“Khori has been great for us,” he said. “He’s been a factor defensively. Obviously, he can shoot it. To come out in this atmosphere like that speaks to what he’s capable of.”
Fusco’s only other PIAA playoff experience came as a freshman, when Clairton played two early-round games in Class A.
Mars’ next opponent, William Penn, defeated WPIAL third-place playoff finisher Chartiers Valley, 85-73, in another first-round game Friday.
“Everybody just found a way to contribute tonight,” Rob Carmody said. “We’ll turn our attention now to the next step. In a game like this, where you’re fighting and scrapping, that’s what you need.”
Milton Hershey was led by Kamiron Webster’s 19 points. Josh Parra added 13 and Naeem Cross scored 11 for the foul-plagued Spartans, whose furious fourth-quarter comeback attempt stalled.
Milton Hershey lost three players to fouls, while Mars fouled out one.
Long after the outcome had been decided, Rob Carmody let out a sigh of relief and looked upwards.
“We did a great job,” he finally offered in a hushed tone. “We did a great job to score 74 points on those guys.”