‘Locked-in’ Deer Lakes boys top Mohawk in Class 3A quarterfinals

Thursday, February 23, 2023 | 10:10 PM

Players and coaches for No. 5 seed Deer Lakes huddled in a locker room Thursday night at Moon High School in the moments after a dominating 59-45 victory over No. 4 Mohawk in a WPIAL Class 3A quarterfinal-round boys basketball game.

The message was clear: Two down, two to go.

“We said, ‘We’ve got to win four,’ ” Deer Lakes coach Albie Fletcher said. “I told them, ‘That’s two. We’ve got two to go (to win a WPIAL championship). They’re locked in. They believe, but it’s going to get tougher.”

Bryce Robson scored 24 points, including all five of Deer Lakes’ 3-pointers, and Nate Litrun added 14 to lead the Lancers (15-8), who advance to the quarterfinals Monday at a yet-to-be-determined site and time against top-seeded Steel Valley. The Ironmen squeezed out a 56-54 victory over No. 9 Seton La Salle.

Robson scored 14 second-half points, including 12 on four shots from behind the arc.

The Lancers also benefited from a 13-for-15 effort at the foul line after halftime. They finished 16 for 23 overall compared to 5 for 8 for Mohawk.

Deer Lakes took advantage of Mohawk’s cold shooting in the first half to take a 22-11 halftime lead, then held off a third-quarter charge by the Warriors (20-4), who started to heat up from 3-point range and outscored the Lancers, 20-16.

But a 21-14 fourth-quarter advantage that saw Deer Lakes convert 9 of 10 free throws settled the outcome amid no drama. Mohawk coach Mike O’Lare lamented the Warriors’ 1-for-15 showing from 3-point range before halftime.

“It’s just that simple. We shot 8 for 13 in the second half,” he said. “We shoot a lot of 3s, and we needed a few more of those in the first half.”

Trailing by 11 at the break, Mohawk cut into the deficit and got within 35-28 on a reverse layup by JJ Nail. The teams traded 3-pointers and headed to the fourth quarter with Deer Lakes clinging to a 38-31 lead.

The Lancers regrouped and opened the final 8 minutes on a 13-4 run to go ahead 51-35. Mohawk got no closer than 12 the rest of the way.

“They just were bigger in person than we expected,” O’Lare said. “Their guards are big, and their bigs are big. They’re faster, and they had some playoff success (in Class 4A) last year. Their experience, toughness and quickness gives them all the pieces. They’re the best team we’ve played all year.”

Devin Sudziak led Mohawk with 14 points, including four 3-pointers — all in the second half. Bobby Fadden scored 10 for the Warriors, who will play in the consolation round beginning Saturday at home against Seton La Salle at time to be determined.

Fletcher said a three-game losing streak that followed a monumental 70-55 victory on Dec. 22 over Our Lady of Sacred Heart — ending the nation’s longest winning streak at 74 — was enough to shake some sense back into his players.

“We just got back to the basics after that,” Fletcher said, referring to a pair of one-point setbacks to Steel Valley and Burrell and a seven-point decision to Avonworth.

“They were close losses, but they were losses,” he said. “At the time, some of the guys said, ‘You know, coach, we acted like we won the WPIAL championship. We’re not done yet.’ So we had to learn how to win that big game, handle it — which we didn’t seem to do too well — and get that focus back that got us in a position to beat (OLSH) in the first place.”

Fletcher said his team — a group led by four senior starters — held a meeting and “they were all accountable. My seniors are such great leaders. They all said the same thing: ‘We’re not working like we were two weeks ago. Let’s get back at it.’ ”

For Deer Lakes, the focus shifts to the opportunity for another victory Monday in the semifinals following their encounter in December, when Steel Valley nosed out the Lancers, 62-61, at the Deer Lakes Tournament.

“Our record doesn’t matter,” Fletcher said. “The important thing is we’re getting better. We’re battled-tested. We were battled-tested before Jan. 1, and now it’s starting to reap the benefits. I think they believe that and see it. They see film on these other teams and they say, ‘We can win this thing.’

“I believe we can.”

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