Highlands erases late lead to knock off top-ranked Mars

Friday, January 15, 2021 | 9:41 PM

Heading into this season, Highlands boys basketball coach Tyler Stoczynski knew he was going to have to ask sophomore point guard Jimmy Kunst to carry the scoring load.

On Friday night, when the Golden Rams (1-0, 1-0) visited No. 1-ranked Mars (3-1, 2-1), Kunst stepped up big. After erasing an eight-point Mars lead, the Golden Rams came down the court with 14.8 seconds remaining, and Kunst hit a 3-pointer to put Highlands up 52-51 and seal the victory.

“I felt like we were playing good defense all game. We were getting the shots we wanted. Some of them weren’t falling,” Kunst said. “But at the end of the game, it was definitely not what I envisioned when I woke up this morning. It’s surreal.”

After losing seniors Luke Cochran, Johnny Crise and Korry Myers, who were crucial to their WPIAL Class 4A championship last season, Stoczynski knew he would have to rely on new players this season. But he knew that Kunst would be the guy to deliver.

“He’s made a lot of shots over the last few days in practice, and, hey, he didn’t make a lot of shots early but everyone on our team just kept telling him to shoot it,” Stoczynski said. “When it comes down to it, though, he’s the guy that we trust when we need to make a shot, so we had to put the ball in his hands.”

Kunst finished the game with 15 points and senior Antoine McDaniel and junior Carter Leri added 10 each for the Golden Rams in their first game of the season. Mihali Sfanos led Mars with a game-high 22 points and carried the Fightin’ Planets throughout the second half. But the game was a back and forth affair.

The Golden Rams took a three-point lead into halftime after Mars’ Zac Schlegel hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut their lead 23-20. they never went away after that.

Coming out of the locker room, it seemed the game was starting to wear on the Golden Rams as they were still working to get their legs back from the long layoff. Mars took advantage.

Sfanos scored seven of his points in the third quarter, and Mars battled back by stifling the Golden Rams on the defensive end. They limited them to just six points, their lowest quarter of the matchup, and it seemed like they were in complete control for a large stretch of the second half.

“That was first game, that was conditioning,” Stoczynski said about the third quarter. “We talked about it in our pregame that there were going to be big highs in this game, and there were going to be lows in this game and you can’t go one way or another. You have to stay even-keeled.”

With 5 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game, the Golden Rams trailed by eight but battled back. Leri hit a three to cut the lead to 46-40 and then, after the teams went back and forth, senior DJ Loveland hit a big three from the corner to cut Mars’ lead to 51-49.

Fifteen seconds later, senior Dom Pesci, who missed most of last season with concussion symptoms, came up with a huge steal, and Stoczynski called a timeout to set up Kunst’s three.

“We knew we had to come back, and I think our team understood that we needed to score quick,” Kunst said. “We did that, and we got the shots we wanted. Everyone stepped up big. The coaches said we needed to step up, and that’s what we did.”

The Golden Rams are off until they take on Plum on Tuesday, and Mars will travel to Hampton on the same day.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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