Laurel Highlands fends off Belle Vernon surge to win section showdown

Tuesday, January 10, 2023 | 11:25 PM

Despite putting together a furious second-half rally to overcome a 10-point halftime deficit, Belle Vernon ultimately fell short Tuesday night.

The Leopards took the lead midway through the third quarter and held it on a few occasions in the fourth, but Rodney Gallagher, Keondre DeShields and Laurel Highlands found a way to defend their home court and fend off the visitors for a 69-64 win in Section 3-4A action.

“I figured this game was going to be tight one way or another, so there was no surprise there,” Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger said. “Our guys played with a lot of intensity and did a great job on defense, especially in the first quarter. BVA has some really talented players, but we were able to switch things up late and hold on.”

Belle Vernon (5-6, 1-2) trailed 40-30 at halftime before a quick 7-0 run cut the deficit to 40-37 within the opening minute and a half. Quinton Martin followed up a rebound with a layup, Zion Moore hit a clutch 3-pointer and Trevor Kovatch came up with a big steal and a bucket to prompt a timeout by the Mustangs.

After a bucket by Patrick Cavanaugh helped end the spurt, Belle Vernon continued on with a bucket from Braden Laux and another 3 from Kovatch that tied the game at 42-42.

Martin led the way with 19 points and 13 rebounds for the Leopards. Moore had 17 points and hit three 3-pointers, while Kovatch also had three 3-pointers on his way to a 16-point showing. Kovatch added three steals.

“Trevor was great on offense, but his defense was good, too. He got some steals and hustled his butt off,” Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino said. “I don’t have just two guys who can contribute. I have at least four or five people who can do what needs to be done.”

Gallagher, who finished with a game-high 24 points, drained a 3-pointer, but Moore countered it with another shot from beyond the arc. Martin then followed up a steal with a bucket inside to give Belle Vernon a 47-45 edge with 3:45 left in the third.

“We started playing defense a lot better, we ran our offense, and we got some nice shots coming off screens,” Salvino said of what became a 17-5 spurt over four-plus minutes for the Leopards.

“All that stuff is very important and sometimes I think we forget about that stuff. I have to say that this was the best defensive game we’ve played all year, and it’s only going to get better.”

Laurel Highlands (10-1, 3-0) planted its foot back on the gas pedal in the final two and a half minutes of the frame, as DeShields and Mason Bolish scored four points apiece during a late 8-2 run that allowed the Mustangs to retake the lead at 53-49 after three.

The Leopards took the lead back in the early stages of the fourth behind back-to-back-to-back buckets from Laux, Moore and Kovatch that made it 55-53.

The teams traded baskets over the next few minutes with DeShields hitting two big 3-pointers and scoring eight of his team’s 10 points over the span of four minutes.

A bucket by Patrick Cavanaugh allowed Laurel Highlands to take a 61-60 lead with 4:46 on the clock, but a two-and-a-half-minute drought followed for both teams.

A wide open jumper by DeShields pushed the Mustangs’ lead to 63-60 around the two-minute mark before a free throw from Alonzo Wade cut the Belle Vernon deficit to two.

In the final minute and a half, Laurel Highlands scored six of the final nine points to secure the win.

“We missed a couple of shots, which didn’t help, and I think we forced some of those shots down the stretch, too,” Salvino said. “We took a couple of 3s that we didn’t need to take instead of running the offense and getting penetration.”

Gallagher and DeShields combined to go 4 for 6 from the free-throw line down the stretch.

DeShields followed Gallagher with 22 points in the win, while Bolish added 11.

“It was a good ballgame and I give Gallagher and DeShields a lot of credit because they’re two tough ballplayers,” Salvino said. “But I also thought we did a pretty good job on them.”

Belle Vernon led 9-5 in the opening half of the first quarter before Laurel Highlands used a 12-2 run to gain some separation and take a 17-11 lead after one.

Gallagher scored the final seven points of Laurel Highlands’ spurt to help his team’s cause early. He missed the team’s last few games while spending time in San Antonio preparing for the All-American Bowl, a high school football all-star game that included some of the top senior players in the country.

Gallagher continued to lead the Mustangs in the second quarter.

After a 3 from Kovatch cut the Leopards’ deficit to 17-14, Gallagher scored seven points and DeShields added six during a 13-1 run that made it 30-15 with 4:46 left in the frame.

Belle Vernon called a timeout to regroup and managed to cut into its deficit again with a 13-6 surge that included six points apiece from Martin and Moore.

The Leopards trailed 36-28 in the final minute of the quarter, but Laurel Highlands scored four of the final six points in the last minute to take its 10-point advantage into the half.

Laurel Highlands takes a four-game winning streak into a road matchup with Southmoreland on Friday. Belle vernon will look to return to the win column when it hosts Albert Gallatin.

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