Mars boys topple Highlands in battle for 1st place in Section 4-5A

Friday, January 14, 2022 | 10:14 PM

Mars senior Zach Schlegel remembers last season’s trip to Highlands that resulted in a 13-point loss that ended the Planets’ streak of eight consecutive section titles.

The 5-foot-10 guard didn’t want a repeat.

Schlegel scored 24 points — including 15 of 15 from the foul line — as Mars took over first place in Section 4-5A with a 73-62 victory over the Golden Rams.

“This was really kind of an emotional game for us,” Schlegel said. “We came here last year and kind of laid an egg. I took pride in this game because I wanted to beat them so badly after they took the section from us. We stayed together and played hard.”

The Planets are in sole possession of first place at 5-0, 9-1 overall.

“Anytime you go on the road in the section on a Friday night, I didn’t know how our guys would react,” said Mars coach Rob Carmody. “This is the first time they’ve played in front of like a hostile crowd in two years. It’s a really big win because they’ve already had Hampton and Shaler in here, two of the better teams and beat them.”

As a team, Mars was 24 of 26 at the foul line: 92%.

“We knew coming in that they are so good when they get out in front,” Carmody said. “We only had seven turnovers tonight. Jimmy Kunst is one of the best in the WPIAL at taking a live-ball turnover or a long rebound and turning into two or three points.”

The Planets led wire-to-wire, building a 12-point lead late in the first quarter despite the loss of two starters. Jonah Kozora has a broken wrist, and Bryce Cunningham was in a walking boot Friday.

But sophomore Ryan Ceh, in his first career start, nailed four 3-pointers, including one in the first quarter after a steal by Austin Cote put the Planets in front 14-4. Cote has started some games in the past.

Highlands is 4-1 in the section, 8-4 overall.

Said Highlands coach Corey Dotchin: “They jumped out on us early, and we’d respond. They’d jump back on us, we’d respond. I said at halftime they kind of punched us in the mouth early, and they were ready to play after we beat them twice last year.”

The Golden Rams, down by 12 late in the first quarter, cut the Mars lead to 23-21 on a putback by Kunst with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left in the half. But Schlegel was fouled behind the arc and calmly made three straight foul shots without hitting the rim, and the Planets were quickly back up by double digits.

Highlands got within 42-39, but Kunst picked up his fourth foul late in the third quarter and headed for the bench.

“That was a big one when you lose your best player,” Dotchin said. “He is the heart and soul of our team. He carries us, but we’re still figuring things out. We’re still learning. We play three sophomores and two juniors a majority of the time.”

With Kunst out, Highlands had to work the ball into Chandler Thimons and Bradyn Foster. Thimons finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, and Foster had 12 — 10 in the fourth quarter.

Junior guard Tasso Sfanos finished with 17 for Mars, despite playing most of the fourth quarter with four fouls. Six-foot-6 senior Chris Dvorak and Ceh both had 12.

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