Hot-shooting Ambridge tops No. 1 Quaker Valley, moves closer to section title

Friday, February 8, 2019 | 10:39 PM

The last time an Ambridge boys basketball team entered the playoffs as the WPIAL favorite was 1967, coach Mark Jula told his Bridgers.

“I told them, the only team that’s ever been ranked No. 1 in the history of Ambridge is that pretty good team,” said Jula, stirring memories of a legendary lineup that’s considered among the WPIAL’s best ever.

“Yeah, they weren’t bad,” he added with a laugh.

Jula’s history lesson was timely because this year’s team now has the No. 1 seed within its reach. Ambridge’s Aaron Hilzendeger scored 30 points including a pair of 3-pointers as the third-ranked Bridgers used a red-hot shooting night to defeat No. 1 Quaker Valley, 75-65, on Friday night.

Eric Chambers added 12 points on four 3-pointers as Ambridge went 10 for 22 from the arc in its home gym.

The victory sets up a Saturday night showdown between Ambridge (14-7, 9-2) and New Castle (15-4, 9-2) for the Section 2-4A title. The second-ranked Red Hurricanes visit Ambridge at 7:30 p.m.

Whichever team wins almost certainly receives the No. 1 seed when the WPIAL playoff brackets are revealed Tuesday.

“If we play like tonight,” Jula said, “we’re going to be hard to beat.”

The section title would be Ambridge’s first since 2006-07.

Ryan Stowers scored 17 points, Danny Conlan had 15 and Adou Thiero added 13 for Quaker Valley (18-3, 9-3), which could have clinched the section title itself with a win Friday night. Instead, the Quakers will finish tied for second.

“We picked a bad night to be pretty flat,” QV coach Mike Mastroianni said. “That was probably the worst we played all year. We had an opportunity to go win the section, but we didn’t play the way we had to play to beat a good team like Ambridge.”

When the teams played in January, Ambridge defeated Quaker Valley, 72-67, in double overtime. For awhile the rematch was just as close, tied 12-12 after the first quarter, until Ambridge’s perimeter shots started falling.

The Bridgers went 5 for 8 from 3-point range in the second quarter with four different shooters makings 3s. Consecutive 3s by Hilzendeger and Omarri Flannigan about a minute apart gave Ambridge a 33-27 lead at halftime.

“I was here at 3 o’clock getting shots up today,” said Hilzendeger, who went 10 for 16 from the field. “I usually get here at about 5, but this was a big one. I’ll probably get here again at 3 for New Castle, too.”

Ambridge used nine points from Hilzendeger and a half-dozen offensive rebounds to pull away in the third — outscoring Quaker Valley, 21-13, in the quarter.

The Bridgers entered the fourth leading 54-40.

“They started hot in the third quarter last game and went up by about 11,” Hilzendeger said. “This time we went up by (double figures). That was the turning point.”

Combined, Conlan and Stowers scored 22 of Quaker Valley’s 27 first-half points, so Ambridge switched to a triangle-and-two defense after halftime. With defenders chasing them, Conlan added six points in the second half and Stowers had only four.

“I said, we’re going to try (the triangle-and-two) for one possession and make those other guys do something,” Jula said. “If they don’t hit (a shot), they’re going to get tight. We hardly got out of it. We used the triangle for 90 percent of that half.”

New Castle was originally slotted to play at Ambridge on Dec. 21 when the WPIAL first released section schedules. But the Bridgers took a four-game trip to Las Vegas in late December, so the home matchup against New Castle was postponed until the end of the regular season.

That gave Ambridge home games on consecutive nights to finish the regular season.

“It worked out tremendous for the town of Ambridge, I think,” Jula said. “You play these two teams back to back. Come on, who’s ever had this? Win two games on your home floor for the section title? It’s turned out tremendous.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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