Star freshman Rodney Gallagher leads Laurel Highlands past Mars in WPIAL Class 5A thriller

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Friday, February 28, 2020 | 10:25 PM


There are 131,504 residents in Fayette County, and Rodney Gallagher might’ve hugged them all Friday night.

But first, the Laurel Highlands freshman needed to draw a foul and make two free throws with 4.8 seconds left to defeat two-time defending champion Mars, 52-51, in the WPIAL Class 5A final at Petersen Events Center.

Freshman jitters? Hardly.

“I just made them,” Gallagher said. “I can’t even explain because it was just in the moment.”

Mars junior Mihali Sfanos had given the Planets a one-point lead on a steal and layup with 27 seconds left, but another Sfanos layup at the buzzer missed after he’d raced from end to end.

The WPIAL title was Laurel Highlands’ first since 1968, when Mustangs coach Rick Hauger was still in middle school, so family, friends and fans circled the court waiting to shake hands, hug and take photos with Gallagher, the county’s young superstar who scored 24 points.

A star on the summer circuits, Gallagher has played basketball in many places. He once shared an AAU basketball roster with LeBron James’ son Bronny.

But none of that topped this.

“This is No. 1,” Gallagher said. “Especially in this building, this environment, with the whole community behind us. It’s just amazing.”

The road to the championship wasn’t easy for No. 8 seed Laurel Highlands (17-8). The Mustangs upset No. 1 Penn Hills, No. 4 Thomas Jefferson and No. 3 Mars (19-6) — all by two points or less.

Laurel Highlands trailed 13-12 after one quarter, led 31-29 at halftime and trailed 41-40 after three. The game was close throughout but the final 30 seconds were electric.

“If you paid $7 or $10 for this game, you got every penny’s worth from both sides,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said. “It was fun as a coach to be part of, just like last year with Moon. Somebody has to make a play at the end. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of it tonight.”

With Laurel Highlands leading 50-49, Sfanos stole an inbounds pass near midcourt and made a breakaway layup to take a one-point lead with 27 seconds left.

Laurel Highlands could have retaken the lead with 13.9 left, but referees waived off senior Keandre Cook’s floater in the lane and called him for an offensive foul. The foul was Cook’s fifth.

Mars’ lead remained 51-50.

The situation looked dire for the Mustangs as Mars sophomore Zach Schlegel stepped to the foul line with 12.4 seconds left, but Schlegel missed the front end of a one-and-one. Laurel Highlands’ Tyvaughn Long grabbed the rebound, passed the ball to Gallagher and watched him race down the floor.

Gallagher, who tried to drive to the basket, was fouled with 4.8 seconds left.

Earlier in the game, Gallagher was knocked to the floor by an elbow from Mars’ Michael Carmody. With two foul shots, Gallagher struck back and toppled a two-time defending champion.

“(Gallagher) is as advertized,” Rob Carmody said. “What’s unique about him is that he understands game situation so well. There are guys that have talent. But to understand how to utilize your talent … that’s usually something that comes for a point guard later (in high school). He already has that sense.”

With 4.8 seconds left, Sfanos raced the length of the court but his driving layup in the lane missed. Michael Carmody and sophomore Chris Dvorak each scored 14 points for Mars, and Sfanos had 10.

Cook added 12 points for Laurel Highlands.

The 6-foot-6, 290-pound Carmody was a force around the basket for the entire first half and into the second before foul trouble limited his aggressiveness. Carmody was whistled for his third and fourth fouls in a 40-second span late in the third. One was the flagrant elbow to Gallagher after Carmody had grabbed a rebound, and the other was an offensive foul at the other end.

The flagrant foul call led to four points for Laurel Highlands, cutting a seven-point Mars lead to three.

“You have to be 100 percent sure that there was intent to throw an elbow,” said Rob Carmody, who insisted it wasn’t intentional. “I just don’t know that you could make that call.”

The WPIAL title was Laurel Highlands’ first since the team defeated Donora, 74-53, in the WPIAL finals in 1968. Four years later, the Mustangs returned to the finals and lost to Farrell, 70-50.

Laurel Highlands hadn’t been back since.

“Fayette County needed this,” Gallagher said.

Watch an archived broadcast on Trib HSSN.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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