South Park boys see big lead threatened before pulling away from Ambridge

Thursday, March 4, 2021 | 10:50 PM

South Park had several chances to show Ambridge some mercy in their WPIAL Class 4A first-round boys basketball game Thursday. But the Eagles could not deliver the knockout punch, so they settled for a unanimous 90-72 victory.

“Crazy one,” South Park coach Jason Dolak said about his team’s win. “Anytime you’re coming into the playoffs, you never know what’s going to happen.”

This one looked like a cake walk for the Eagles, but there were some tense moments in the second half before the team pulled away.

South Park orchestrated a near-perfect first half.

The Eagles were patient in their half-court offense, hit the shots behind the arc or after driving to the rim and played tenacious defense that led to several fastbreak points. South Park built an 11-point lead after one quarter and upped it to a 52-25 advantage by halftime.

“It goes a lot to our preparation,” Dolak said. “For the first time all year, we actually had an opportunity to practice more than once for (an opponent). It was nice to sit back and figure out exactly how we wanted to attack them. The guys did a great job in practice getting us prepared, and they followed through and executed in the first half.”

In high school basketball, if a team takes a 30-point lead at any point in the second half, the mercy rule kicks in, and the game finishes with a running clock.

The Eagles had a 30-point lead late in the first half and had several possessions to start the third quarter to increase their lead to 30 and invoke the mercy rule. When they could not, it seemed to spark Ambridge.

Suddenly, a Bridgers offense that was stagnant in the first half became fluid as momentum slowly shifted toward the visitors.

Ambridge cut into the South Park lead to 20 points by the end of the third quarter and kept chipping away in the fourth, finally pulling to within 10 points with just over two minutes left in the game. But the Eagles scored 10 of the final 12 points to pull away.

“We know the game is going to be ebb and flow, and we talk about just trying to be consistent all the time,” Dolak said. “I think our guys are pretty steady, so I wasn’t really worried about our demeanor or our attitude or anything. It was more about managing our foul situation and manage the game and tick the clock away.”

Senior Aidan Rongaus led South Park with 30 points, and sophomore teammate Harper Conroy added 20 points, 15 in the opening half.

Ambridge sophomore and second-leading scorer in Class 4A Damon Astorino was limited to six first-half points before coming to life in the second half. He finished with 24 points while 6-foot-10 senior Enire Bowens completed his Bridgers scholastic career with 21 points.

The Eagles lost junior starter Gino Maffeo to a leg injury in the second quarter. He needed help getting off the court, but Dolak is optimistic he will be ready for the next round.

“I think he’s going to be all right. He was begging to go back in,” Dolak said. “He just wants to play. I think he’ll be OK for Monday.”

South Park ended a three-game losing streak and improved to 9-5 overall. The Eagles will see a familiar foe Monday in the quarterfinals when they take on section rival and top-seed Belle Vernon.

The Leopards beat the Eagles in their only meeting this season, 76-67 on Feb. 9 at Belle Vernon.

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