Latrobe shows toughness, knocks off seventh-seeded Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, March 3, 2021 | 10:06 PM

Thomas Jefferson head coach Dom DeCicco called a timeout with 10 seconds remaining in Wednesday’s WPIAL playoff opener to devise an appropriate offensive strategy.

With TJ trailing Latrobe by two points, the veteran mentor scripted up a pair of play calls: A shot inside for 6-foot-6 senior forward Ethan Dunsey and a long range opportunity for 6-1 freshman guard Evan Berger.

The Jaguars had to go the full length of the court and eventually got the ball in Berger’s hands; however, a strong defensive move by Latrobe’s Ryan Sickenberger forced the freshman to push the ball across court to senior Ian Hansen.

Hansen lifted up an off-balanced prayer with one second remaining on the clock, but it didn’t fall, giving No. 10 Latrobe a 61-59 upset victory over No. 7 Thomas Jefferson in the first round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.

“Evan threw the pass, but we really wanted him to take that shot there,” DeCicco said. “He’s a freshman, and that’s a tough thing to put on a kid, but he is who we wanted to shoot if we were going to shoot a 3. If not, we wanted to go inside to Dunsey.”

Latrobe (8-6) trailed by as many as four points within the first minute of the fourth quarter before going on a 9-2 run to take a 57-54 lead with 3:34 left.

TJ (18-5) answered over the next minute and a half to regain the lead at 59-57 behind a fast break layup by Hansen, who finished with 14 points, and a 3-pointer by Berger, who added an 11-point effort.

The Jaguars had the momentum in their favor in the final minute, but a missed free throw by Jake Pugh turned into a three-point play by Ryan Sickenberger on the other end to give the Wildcats a 60-59 lead.

With a chance to potentially take back the advantage, TJ committed a costly turnover with 20 seconds to go and on the other end, Frank Newill was sent to the free throw line. Newill missed the foul shot, but Landon Butler picked up an important offensive rebound before converting on 1 of 2 from the charity stripe to give the Wildcats the two-point edge they wouldn’t relinquish.

“I just thought it was such a gritty effort by our guys,” Latrobe head coach Brad Wetzel said. “A lot of credit goes to Thomas Jefferson because that’s a well-coached team and an extremely physical team. We knew coming in that if we gave in to that physicality, we wouldn’t have a chance. I thought our boys gave us a chance by simply sticking their nose in there and saying, ‘We’re not going away unless you take it from us.’

“Down the stretch, we just had good execution and tough, gritty play. I couldn’t be happier for this bunch of guys.”

Newill led the way for the Wildcats, especially down the stretch as he scored seven of his team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter. Ryan Sickenberger contributed with 16 points and Landon Butler added 11.

On the other end, TJ failed to capitalize on more than a few chances in the final eight minutes.

“We uncharacteristically missed foul shots at the end and we had three opportunities up by four (at the beginning of the fourth quarter) and missed three wide open looks,” DeCicco said. “In the playoffs, you have to take advantage of every opportunity you have. They hit key shots at key times and we just didn’t make the plays at the end.”

While TJ has become accustomed to using its depth to its advantage this season, the Jaguars were dealt a big blow with less than three minutes left in the game as senior guard Aidan Kelly picked up his fifth foul.

The absence of Kelly, one of TJ’s top scorers, was evident in the final seconds of the loss.

“That took a scorer off the court for us,” DeCicco said. “If he’s on the court, it would have just given us another option to shoot the ball.”

Latrobe held a one-point lead after both the first and second quarters before TJ narrowly won the third by a slim 20-17 margin.

Neither team held more than a four-point lead in the contest.

“We knew they were quick, athletic and good,” DeCicco said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game.”

Hansen and Berger were joined in double figures by Dunsey, who served as a force inside for the Jaguars by pouring in a game-high 22 points. Seven of his points came in the third quarter.

With Thomas Jefferson now in its rear-view mirror, Latrobe will turn its attention to a quarterfinal matchup with No. 2 New Castle on Saturday.

“New Castle is probably one of the best programs in the state of Pennsylvania,” Wetzel said. “We’ll let the kids enjoy this one until lunch time (Thursday) and we’ll go from there.”

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