Highlands holds off Belle Vernon in Class 4A 1st-round victory

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 | 10:13 PM

Highlands saw its playoff life flashing before its eyes against an unafraid underdog Belle Vernon.

The Golden Rams prepared all season for such a moment, though, and ultimately it paid off.

A career night from Johnny Crise, a few key defensive plays and some clutch free-throw shooting proved just enough for Highlands, as the No. 5 Golden Rams outlasted No. 12 Belle Vernon, 75-67, in a WPIAL Class 4A first-round game Wednesday night at North Hills.

“At this point of the year, it doesn’t matter if you win by one or win by 20 — you’ve just got to survive and advance,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “We obviously didn’t have our best night tonight, but we found a way to win. I applaud our guys for that.”

In a game with 10 ties and 18 lead changes, an 8-0 run by Highlands (16-7) in the fourth quarter provided just enough breathing room for the Golden Rams, who advanced to the quarterfinals for the fourth time in five seasons. They’ll play No. 4 Uniontown on Saturday at a site and time to be determined.

It took every bit of effort the Golden Rams had in reserve to shake Belle Vernon (8-15).

The 6-foot-7 Crise scored a career-high 29 points and pulled down 16 rebounds, crucial on a night when Highlands made just one 3-pointer. The team did make 28 of its 34 free-throw attempts, however.

“I was telling our guys just keep our head and come together when stuff (isn’t) going our way,” Crise said. “It worked for us in the long run.”

A regular season schedule that included games against the likes of Pine-Richland, Lincoln Park and Nazareth Prep, all highly-ranked WPIAL teams, ultimately helped Highlands when it became most necessary.

Crise’s baseline layup with 3 minutes, 50 seconds remaining gave the battle-tested Rams the lead for good, kick-starting the 8-0 run, and he followed by drawing a charge on the defensive end — one of two such defensive plays the team made in the fourth. Crise added another layup after collecting a loose ball, and sophomore Mason Swanger buried Highlands’ lone 3 to make it a 64-58 game.

“We just came together, and we talked,” Crise said. “We were talking more, and our man-to-man defense really came better and sped them up. They were taking tough shots, and we were executing on the offensive end.”

Belle Vernon never got closer than four points after that, as Highlands shot 15 of18 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.

“I give Highlands a lot of credit: They did what they had to do,” Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino said. “We played hard, and that’s all I can ask out of my guys.”

The Leopards, who had the second-lowest seed of any Class 4A playoff qualifier, didn’t play like it for much of the night against Highlands, which made the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals last season.

They followed the pattern of a typical NCAA March Madness Cinderella, hitting shots from the outside and always remaining in range. Cam Nusser scored 26 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter, Larry Callaway added 21 and Mitch Pohlot had 17. The Leopards made seven 3-pointers to Highlands’ one.

“When you get into the playoffs, you have no wins or losses,” Salvino said, “so you’re going to go out there and you’re hopefully going to put everything out on that floor and not leave anything left because there is no tomorrow. And I think we did that. I thought we put all the effort that we needed to put in into that game. They happened to score more points than we did today.”

From the beginning it became clear the game wouldn’t be a Highlands runaway. The teams traded four ties and 10 lead changes in the first quarter alone, with neither side holding more than a three-point advantage.

Callaway had eight points and hit a pair of 3-pointers for Belle Vernon, including one banked in from the wing. Pohlot had eight points of his own, operating on the block. Crise had nine for Highlands, including a putback dunk and an alley-oop slam.

Highlands led by as many as six points in the second, but Belle Vernon didn’t go away. Pesci’s transition layup at the first-half buzzer gave Highlands a 33-29 advantage at the break.

Nusser caught fire in the third for Belle Vernon, scoring the Leopards’ first nine points of the quarter, and his stepback 3 gave them the lead again. A three-point play by Callaway gave the Leopards a 45-39 advantage midway through the third — their largest lead of the game — before Highlands rallied to go up 51-49 heading to the fourth.

The sides swapped the lead four more times in the fourth, with Nusser’s steal and score giving Belle Vernon its final lead at 58-57 with 4:08 remaining.

But the running Rams had one more run left in them.

“We’ve been in some really close games, and we’ve played through some really good competition,” Stoczynski said. “It allowed some of our guys to step up and execute down the stretch.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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