Highlands beats Mars, grabs at least share of section title

Saturday, February 20, 2021 | 8:27 PM

Highlands reached a milestone Saturday afternoon, securing a school-record fourth consecutive section title.

And the Golden Rams did it against a long-time nemesis.

Highlands defeated Mars in a Section 4-5A make-up game, 65-52, sweeping the season series against the Planets. Before this season, Mars had a 15-game winning streak against the Golden Rams.

The victory gave No. 4 Highlands an 8-1 record in section play, 12-3 overall. No. 5 Mars is 9-2, 13-2.

The Golden Rams can clinch the section outright Tuesday at Hampton. Even if Highlands loses, the Golden Rams can hang a section flag. Postponed games against Shaler and Armstrong won’t be played and will be considered “no contests” in the coronavirus-plagued season.

On Jan. 15, Jimmy Kunst’s 3-pointer gave Highlands a come-from-behind victory at Mars. Saturday, however, the Golden Rams led wire-to-wire.

Kunst led the way with 20 points and six assists. Carter Leri had 11, and Chandler Thimons added 10 points, along with 10 rebounds.

“We have the utmost respect for that program,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said of Mars. “They’re super well coached, and there’s a reason they’re on the top of the section every single year competing for championships. We played really well, and we played unselfishly. It was a complete team win.”

Mars, the WPIAL runner-up last year, losing a heartbreaker to Laurel Highlands, will be in the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season.

“We are a team that is built around our guard play,” Planets coach Rob Carmody said. “We’re a team that’s averaged 10 or 11 3-pointers in every game, and outside of one or two shots our big players took, I really can’t question our shots. Credit their defense, but we never found a comfort level shooting the basketball.”

Mars managed just five treys Saturday.

Highlands raced out to a 7-0 lead in the first three minutes, thanks to a pair of inside baskets by Wahkeem Roman and a 3-pointer by Leri. A put-back by Kunst gave Highlands its first double-digit lead, 14-4, with 3 minutes, 23 seconds left in the opening quarter.

“Our guys were excited to play this game, and we got off to a good start,” Stoczynski said. “We’ve been on the other end of those kind of things lately but glad it was our turn to go up early and keep that lead the whole game.”

Highlands took its biggest lead, 22-8, with 6:47 left in the half on Dom Pesci’s only basket of the game. But Mars never can be counted out. The Planets cut the deficit to 29-27 on a pair of free throws by Mihali Sfanos with 6:47 to go in the third quarter.

With Highlands in front 39-35, Antoine McDaniel nailed a 3-pointer from beyond the foul circle, and a follow by 6-foot-6 freshman Brayden Foster helped give the Golden Rams a 45-35 lead going into the fourth period.

Mars cut it to 54-48 on a basket by Zach Schlegal with 3:12 to go, but the Planets couldn’t get any closer.

The three guards all scored in double figures for Mars: Sfanos had 17 points, brother Tasso Sfanos had 13 and Schlegal 11.

“Our team this year has evolved into making jump shots and getting on runs,” Carmody said. “We could never sustain it today. Credit Highlands. They did a great job, they pressured us defensively. Our guys took the shots we wanted them to take, and Highlands did a good job executing.”

Chris Dvorak grabbed 10 rebounds for Mars.

Highlands is looking to win the section outright.

“Tonight loses a little of its luster if we don’t take care of business against Hampton,” Stoczynski said.

Highlands is looking to open the playoffs at home for only the second time in history. The Golden Rams defeated Franklin Regional in 1984.

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