Penn Hills too much for Mars in Class 5A quarterfinals

Wednesday, February 22, 2023 | 11:14 PM

Throughout the 2022-23 season, the Penn Hills Indians have flexed their muscles, athleticism and length to have a lot of success, in search of a WPIAL title, which would be the sixth in program history.

The story was no different Wednesday in the WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinals, as the Indians used their tenacious defense and length to dominate on the glass and get to the shooters of a talented Mars team en route to a 60-41 win.

Second-seeded Penn Hills (19-3) reached the semifinals for the first time since 2019 and ended a run of three-straight quarterfinal exits.

Couple that good defense with 47% shooting from the field and the recipe for a win was found.

No. 7 Mars (15-7) will now head to the consolation bracket to play for a spot in the state tournament. Seven of the eight quarterfinalists will represent the WPIAL in the PIAA playoffs.

“To be honest, our defense was pretty good today. We were connected defensively and we had five guys on the floor at all times that were committed to defense first,” said Penn Hills coach Chris Giles. “That’s a really good team. (Mars) can score and we knew we had to be ready and organized. Our kids came out and followed the game plan.”

Penn Hills was 13 for 23 from the field in the first half and 14 for 34 in the second half. The Indians only tried three triples all game, making one.

The Indians led all night. Penn Hills took an 18-10 advantage after eight minutes, 29-16 at the break, 45-27 after three and finished with a 15-14 fourth quarter to bring the game to its final.

In all, the Indians got contributions offensively from six players, four of whom were in double figures. Noah Barren led the victorious Indians with 18 points, while Daemar Kelly scored 15, Robert Thomas chipped in 11 and Julian Dugger added 10.

“If you look at it, we shared the ball really well tonight. We weren’t forcing shots. The ball got from one side to the other,” said Giles. “If you’ve got five guys committed to doing something together, you can have success.”

The Fightin’ Planets were led by senior Tasso Sfanos, who scored 22 points and singlehandedly accounted for all but one of Mars’ 11 third-quarter points. Mars struggled to shoot, going 35% from the field and 5 for 24 (21%) from 3-point land. The Planets also committed 14 turnovers.

“(Penn Hills) is unique. You have a team that obviously, you look at them athletically, they’re very versatile because of their size and length,” said Mars coach Rob Carmody. “Add to it that they’re well-coached and they’re bought in to playing defense. When you have a team that’s more athletic than you and they’re bought in, they make things challenging.”

Mars knew it would have to play a bit more up tempo and get out and run if it wanted to have success. Carmody said they wanted to get Penn Hills in situations where the Indians couldn’t set their defense but had a tough time doing that as the game played out.

“One of the things we were concerned with is when you get in the half court, they have the ability and length to kind of swallow us up and you saw that happen,” said Carmody. “The big thing that happens, for high school guys in particular, you don’t usually play teams that across the board have that kind of length. Everything gets so fast. You shoot the ball a little quicker. We’re a really good shooting basketball team. Sometimes you just have to sit back and say, ‘They forced us to do that’.”

Mars will play Fox Chapel in the consolation bracket Friday. If the Planets win that game, they’ll clinch a state playoff spot. If it’s a loss to the Foxes, Mars has to win the seventh-place game, which will be played Tuesday night, to qualify.

“It’s better to play,” said Carmody. “It’s February. We are who we are. We know what we need to do to win basketball games. You’re playing for your playoff lives here. If more games isn’t enough to motivate, there’s nothing we can say. You lean on guys like Tasso, who has played in championship games and state playoff games, and you hope guys follow that lead.”

The Indians will play No. 3 North Hills in the semifinals Saturday and a site and time that will be announced by the district Thursday morning. The quarterfinal win also clinches a spot in the PIAA tournament and a guaranteed top-four seed out of the WPIAL. But the Indians have their sights set on their next challenge.

“They played in a really good conference. They’re well-coached and have been in close games,” said Giles. “It’s going to be a good challenge for our guys.”

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