Penn Hills boys foil Pine-Richland’s 3-peat bid in WPIAL Class 6A final

Saturday, March 3, 2018 | 10:48 PM

Confident and comfortable were the words Cory Fulton chose to describe Penn Hills' halftime mood while trailing a two-time defending champion in the WPIAL finals.

Yes, confident, comfortable and down by seven.

“For the players, there was a confidence because we know we've been a second-half team all year,” the Penn Hills senior said. “For coach, he was antsy, because he wants us to get it in the first half. But everybody was comfortable because we know we've been here before.”

It's true. They'd never held a halftime lead in this entire postseason, yet they advanced each round and ultimately celebrated another third-quarter comeback Saturday night that made them WPIAL champions.

Fulton and senior Daivon Stephens each scored 23 points as Penn Hills defeated Pine-Richland, 60-56, in the WPIAL Class 6A boys basketball final, denying the two-time defending champion a chance to make history.

No. 6 seed Pine-Richland (20-6) was trying to accomplish the second three-peat in the WPIAL's largest classification, a feat achieved only by New Castle in 1997-99, but it was No. 5 Penn Hills (23-3) that celebrated at Petersen Events Center.

The WPIAL title was Penn Hills' fifth overall, and its first since 2003.

Penn Hills took control with a 13-4 run to start the third quarter.

“Obviously, I wasn't very happy at halftime,” third-year Penn Hills coach Dan DeRose said, “but once I calmed down, I kind of explained to them that we'd seen this movie before. One at a time. Don't panic. Let's lock down on defense.”

“He told us to stay focused,” Fulton said, “because we've been doing this all year.”

Penn Hills trailed Upper St. Clair, 29-27, at halftime in the first round, was tied with Central Catholic, 23-23, in the quarterfinals and trailed Mt. Lebanon, 34-24, in the semifinals.

Each time, Penn Hills won the third quarter.

The team trailed Pine-Richland, 34-27, but scored 13 of the first 17 points after halftime including a 3-pointer by Fulton to lead 40-38.

Stephens and Fulton combined to score 29 of Penn Hills' 33 second-half points.

Fulton, a 6-foot guard, finished 7 for 13 from the field and 9 for 14 from the foul line. Stephens, a 6-5 forward, made 6 of 11 shots and 10 of 13 free throw attempts.

“Earlier today they promised me (a victory),” DeRose said. “They said: ‘Coach, I told you we'd get us here. We're going to finish the job.'”

When Pine-Richland's Phil Jurkovec tied it at 40, Stephens answered with two free throws and teammate Myles Yarbough scored a driving layup to take a four-point lead that the Indians wouldn't lose.

Penn Hills won the third quarter 17-8.

“I just felt like the first three minutes (after halftime) would decide the game,” Pine-Richland coach Jeff Ackermann said. “I told the guys we could maybe get up to eight, nine, 10, 12, or we could let them come back. They came back. From then on, they kind of controlled the game.”

Penn Hills upped its pressure after halftime and tightened its perimeter defense. Pine-Richland shot 52 percent in the first half (11 for 21) and just 28 percent in the second (9 for 32). The Rams made four 3-point attempts in the first half, but missed eight of nine in the second.

“They mixed their defenses up all game, something that we were ready for and expecting,” Ackermann said. “But we didn't handle it as well at the beginning of the third as I would have liked. We really struggled for someone to make shots for us.”

Jurkovec led Pine-Richland with 16 points, Dan Petcash had 12 and Colin Luellen added 10. The WPIAL playoff loss was the team's first since 2015.

“It's disappointing,” Ackermann said. “We can't ever let this program get to the point where we just assume we show up and win. It doesn't happen that way. We'd won 10 consecutive (WPIAL playoff) games, but you're not going to win 20 or 30. Eventually you're going to lose one.”

The past two seasons have included difficult times for Penn Hills' program, with critics questioning the program's overall discipline. DeRose was suspended for the first four games this season as WPIAL-mandated punishment for his comments critical of officials made after a playoff loss last season.

“We talked about it before we came out here,” DeRose said, “all the things we went through this last couple of years with the unfair and unnecessary publicity that we've gotten. It's been us against the world. We've got to prove a lot of people wrong, that we're not what people perceive us to be. We wanted to come out and show we can get this done, that we belong.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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