Rodney Gallagher, Keondre DeShields come alive to push Laurel Highlands past Belle Vernon in OT

Thursday, February 23, 2023 | 11:58 PM

They say it’s difficult to defeat a team three times in a single season, and it sure was for Laurel Highlands on Thursday night.

The Mustangs overcame a 13-point deficit entering the fourth quarter to beat Belle Vernon, 75-71, in an overtime thriller at Peters Township High School.

Entering the fourth quarter, the No. 2 Mustangs (21-2), who will take on No. 6 North Catholic in the semifinals Monday, were on the ropes. They mustered 14 points in the first half before adding 11 in the third as they trailed 38-25. Two key developments emerged in the second half: Both Keondre DeShields (33) and Rodney Gallagher (29) came alive as they ended up with 62 of their squad’s 75 points.

“I think it was a mindset,” Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger said. “Keondre and Rodney, they’re tremendous leaders and they don’t like to lose. Having said that, we finally started attacking the hoop and we started getting the ball up the floor faster rather than walking the thing up. I think that was a big key. We just had to get moving a little bit.”

The victors wasted no time cutting into Belle Vernon’s lead in the fourth, opening the frame on a 10-2 run that made the score 40-35. Still, Zion Moore, who led all scorers with 38 points for the No. 10 Leopards (11-12), continued to will his team offensively as standout Quinton Martin, who finished second in scoring for Belle Vernon with 11, fouled out with 6:07 remaining in regulation.

Both DeShields and Gallagher entered the fourth quarter with four fouls, but they finished the entirety of the game to the dismay of Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino.

“I don’t think the game was played by the teams. I think the game was actually played by the officials, and I don’t like that. You don’t have two players with four fouls going into the fourth quarter and nothing was ever called,” Salvino said. “No charge was called, no hook was called, and to me, that is utterly ridiculous. Three of my kids fouled out. That’s just not the way it’s supposed to be.

“When you have your top ballplayer and rebounder foul out and he’s sitting on the bench for almost a full quarter, it’s always going to hurt. Some of the people I had to put in there, they gave me a minute here and a minute there, but they’re not going to give me a quarter.”

With the score 49-43, both squads continued to trade points until Moore split a pair of free throws and pushed the Leopards to a 55-49 lead with less than a minute to go.

From there, it was disastrous for Belle Vernon.

Gallagher hit a triple to cut his team’s deficit to three points before the Mustangs forced a turnover and Gallagher was fouled on a 3-point attempt. The West Virginia football commit connected on all three free throws, and suddenly, the score was tied at 55.

The Leopards picked up clutch free throws from Trevor Kovatch to take a 57-55 lead, but Gallagher responded again as he finished at the rim with six seconds remaining to send the game to overtime.

There were only three scorers for the majority of overtime, with Moore scoring all 14 of his team’s points in the final frame while Gallagher (9) and DeShields (6) scored 15 of the Mustangs’ 18 overtime points.

Moore pushed Belle Vernon to a 62-59 lead at the beginning of the extra period before the Mustangs went on a 9-0 run that sealed their victory.

Gallagher knocked down two attempts from the line to make the score 64-62 in favor of the victors before a scuffle ensued that left Laurel Highlands with four free throws and possession of the ball as Kovatch fouled Gallagher in the double bonus and Martin was given a technical foul for coming onto the floor in the chaos.

Gallagher connected on three of his four attempts to make the score 67-62, and the Leopards couldn’t fight back as Laurel Highlands iced away its victory from the charity stripe.

Hauger, who celebrated his 600th career win between Penn State Fayette and the girls and boys teams at Laurel Highlands, was thrilled with his team as they battled back from adversity and awarded him a milestone victory.

“It means I’m old,” Hauger said with a laugh regarding win No. 600. “But really, it means that I’ve been blessed with great players and some good helping coaches. As you can see with what’s going on here, the community is really engaged with the program. I’ve been fortunate and I’ve been blessed.”

As for Salvino, he was less impressed with the result, but he will salvage a shot at the states as well as an upcoming matchup with No. 3 Uniontown.

“We’ve gotta let this one go and see what can happen moving forward,” he said. “We have an opportunity to be in the states, so that’s what we have to do.

“To be honest with you, I’d just like to look at the last two games we played because if we played like that throughout the course of the year, I think we would’ve been up there as far as seeding and stuff like that.”

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