Laurel Highlands can’t overcome slow start in loss at McKeesport

Friday, January 17, 2020 | 10:25 PM

Laurel Highlands came on strong in the fourth quarter but could not climb out of a big early deficit as McKeesport prevailed 81-77 at home to take sole possession of second place in Section 1-5A boys basketball.

Mustangs standout freshman Rodney Gallagher led the team with 21 points, but he only had five points at the half as the Tigers’ zone defense kept the ball away from one of the top scorers in the WPIAL.

“Obviously, when you play Laurel Highlands, you worry about (No.) 2,” McKeesport coach Kevin Kovach said about Gallagher. “He’s phenomenal. You can’t say enough about him.

“We thought if we put Colton (Kovach), who is long, to stretch the top of that defense, he wasn’t able to catch the ball anywhere near that 3-point line.”

The opening quarter was dominated by McKeesport (5-2, 8-7).

Laurel Highlands (4-3, 9-5) was confused by how to handle the McKeesport pressure and zone, and junior Robert Robinson was red hot, scoring 12 of his 17 points in the first quarter, which ended with the Tigers leading 24-8.

“Rob’s just filling into his own right now,” Kovach said. “He has the ability to shoot, and when he heats up, he’s as hot as anybody.”

The Mustangs settled in and had the better of the play the rest of the way, but the damage had been done.

Gallagher wasn’t the only outstanding freshman on the floor. McKeesport ninth-grader Travarese Rowe scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half and also was outstanding on defense and on the glass with a game-high 15 rebounds.

“He’s coming off a knee injury, but you could see the flashes of brilliance,” Kovach said. “He still does freshman things to frustrate us, but I’ll trade all those freshman things for all his athletic ability and very high basketball IQ.”

Rowe is a great “boy wonder” to Deamontae Diggs, who is the caped crusader for McKeesport. The senior led all scorers with 28 points as the Tigers kept a double-digit lead through three quarters.

Laurel Highlands showed some fight. Trailing by 12 points after three quarters, the Mustangs cut the deficit thanks to sophomore Jayden Pratt, who supplied a spark off the bench.

The lead was whittled to three points with less than three minutes left. McKeesport guard Brison Kisan missed the front end of a one-and-one but got his own rebound and scored on a baseline jumper and the Mustangs would get no closer.

Both teams entered the game with 4-2 section records, two games behind first place Penn Hills but only one game ahead of Gateway and Albert Gallatin.

The win puts McKeesport alone in second place after the first game of the second half of section play.

“Right now, if our goal is to be at 100. I’d say we’re at a 75 right now,” Kovach said. “We’re just inconsistent. When we make our shots, when we play tough defense and we rebound, we can beat anybody.”

The loss snaps a four-game win streak for Laurel Highlands (4-3, 9-5).

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