Hempfield boys hold off Baldwin in Class 6A first round

Tuesday, March 2, 2021 | 9:46 PM

Stepping foot into what is considered a wide-open WPIAL Class 6A playoff field, while exciting, can also be like a mine field.

Leads, no matter how large, can be unstable in a year like this as teams look for bracket-busting upsets.

Need proof?

Look at Hempfield.

Need proof of a team up for that challenge?

Again, Hempfield.

The third-seeded Spartans saw a 19-point lead early in the fourth quarter shrivel to single digits before finally holding back No. 14 Baldwin, 66-63, in a first-round game Tuesday night at Spartan Fieldhouse.

It is the first postseason win for Hempfield since 2015, and the Spartans (12-5) advance to host No. 6 Pine-Richland (12-5) in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Friday.

Pine-Richland defeated No. 11 Peters Township, 79-67.

“It’s awesome to get the first playoff win and do it at home,” said Hempfield senior guard Mike Hosni, who scored 22 points, 13 in the second half. “We took some time off the clock. Maybe we should have taken off some more. It seemed like we were stuck on 55 for the longest time. We cracked the lid with some free throws, which helped.”

Senior Christian Zilli added 16 points, and junior Sean Gordon scored 15 for Hempfield, which was cruising until the Highlanders surged back.

Baldwin (6-13), seeking its first playoff win since 2003, erupted for 29 points in the final quarter, led by sophomore Bez Abdul and senior Connor Lavelle, who combined for 24 of those points.

Abdul, who had 13 in the quarter and three 3-pointers, scored 10 in the final minute-plus to carve a 53-34 deficit down to 65-60 with 11.8 seconds remaining.

“Thank goodness we got up by 19,” Hempfield coach Bill Swan said. “That gave us a cushion. People say we hold the ball too much. We held it some tonight but made some bad decisions. Baldwin really came back on us.

“We’ve only had six playoff wins here since 2001. We know they’re all precious. We’re not turning in uniforms tomorrow. I know that.”

Swan pulled his team together for a postgame huddle, something you won’t see too often from the Spartans after a win. He wanted to remind his players how fortunate they are to be moving on.

“I wanted them to enjoy the win and be grateful,” Swan said.

Hempfield led from the tip, using hard drives and back-cuts to go ahead 35-24 at the half. The Spartans responded well to Baldwin’s full-court pressure, breaking the press continuously and building the advantage to 30-19 on a 3-pointer by junior Sean Gordon with 2:05 to go in the second quarter.

The lead grew to 17 after three, as Hosni completed a three-point play at the close of the quarter.

He scored again to open the fourth for a 53-34 advantage, which looked insurmountable at the time, until Lavelle and Abdul began to chip away.

Lavelle scored six straight to cut it to 55-46 with 3:26 to go in the fourth. Hempfield reseized momentum and went back up 63-50 with just under two minutes to play.

That’s when Abdul got going. He hit two 3-pointers with under a minute left, then made two short jumpers to make it 65-60.

With time seemingly in slow motion for Hempfield, the Spartans only made three free throws inside the final minute as the Highlanders ended the game on a 15-5 run after Hempfield retook a double-digit lead.

“Hempfield is a very disciplined and structured team,” Baldwin coach Jeff Ackermann said. “I’m disappointed with how we competed at the beginning. We needed to play more of a complete game. I thought we were too passive at times. We have some young guys, and we looked like a team that hadn’t been in the playoffs for a while.”

Lavelle hit a 3 with 3 seconds left for the final score.

“Our kids hung in there,” Swan said. “I knew our kids could handle it. We have tough kids, and they do everything we ask of them. A little adversity never hurts”.

Baldwin, which has juggled lineups all season with players in and out of the lineup because of injuries, only had three other scorers who combined for 19 points. One was senior guard Joey Starzynski, who has missed much of the season with an injured wrist.

Junior Joey Fiedor added seven points for Hempfield.

“You have to give credit to Bill (Swan),” Ackermann said. “He gets the most out of his guys.”

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

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