Surging Jeannette boys overwhelm Winchester Thurston in quarterfinals

Saturday, March 6, 2021 | 5:53 PM

Count Winchester Thurston boys basketball coach Justin Walther among the believers in surging Jeannette’s WPIAL title chances.

“They’re loaded,” he said. “I think they’ve got a chance to win it all.”

The Jayhawks won for the seventh time in a row Saturday at home in the Class 2A quarterfinals and did so convincingly, drubbing Winchester Thurston, 83-38, to avenge an early-season loss to the Bears.

Keith Rockmore’s 19 points led Jeannette (15-4), which has won eight of its past nine games — the only blemish a two-point loss to Class 3A Seton LaSalle. Hunter Schmidt added 16 points, and Anton Good had 12.

No. 5 seed Jeannette advances to Wednesday’s semifinals against top-seeded and unbeaten Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (19-0), a 57-42 winner in the quarterfinals against No. 8 Shenango.

“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Jeannette coach Adrian Batts said. “We’re going to continue to play the way we play.”

Jeannette’s pressure overwhelmed No. 13 Winchester Thurston (9-5) on Saturday as the Jayhawks scored the game’s first 10 points and led 28-2 after one quarter.

Despite Jeannette’s physical, trapping style, Winchester Thurston attempted just 12 free throws. The Bears made nine, and all but one of the attempts came in the second quarter when the Bears outscored the Jayhawks, 23-22, to make it 50-25 at halftime.

It was a contrast to the previous meeting Jan. 15, a come-from-behind 65-60 victory for Winchester Thurston, which made 30 of 37 free throws compared to 10 for 14 for Jeannette.

“It was a tough game,” Batts said. “We learned from it, and we’ve gotten better for it.”

Batts said it was a night-and-day difference between the two games.

“Our guys were ready to play today,” he said. “We started out great down there in the first game and had a lead, and then we stopped playing. When you go to Winchester Thurston, it’s a tough place to play, and those kids are confident on their home floor.

“This is a bigger floor. We knew we were going to press. We played hard, shared the ball, rebounded excellent, made shots … When you start the game with five straight layups, you’re able to build some momentum.”

Walther concurred, sensing his team would need a big effort to produce another victory over Jeannette.

“They wanted us really bad, and we knew that,” Walther said. “We wanted to weather the storm. That’s what we talked about, and we just couldn’t.”

Jackson Juzang led Winchester Thurston with 21 points, 11 coming in the second quarter. The 5-foot-11 Juzang scored 36 in a preliminary-round victory over Jefferson-Morgan.

“We let them get some momentum, a lot of it at the foul line,” Batts said. “We’re aggressive, and we’re going to foul some, but I liked what I saw out there today. The kids really stuck with the gameplan. We finally have our entire team together, too.”

On Saturday, however, Batts lamented the absence of 6-foot-2 freshman Brad Birch, a key reserve who missed much of the season recovering from a broken bone in his foot.

Birch, the Jayhawks’ star quarterback, skipped the game to take part in a 7-on-7 football tournament in Michigan.

“I’m a little disappointed about that,” Batts said. “Today would have been his fifth game back. He does so many little things. He’s a big part of us.”

Jeannette also played a portion of the season without the junior Good and sophomore Shane Mickens, both of whom had been battling injuries.

Birch, already with a football offer from Oregon after passing for 1,676 yards and 30 touchdowns in his first varsity season, broke his foot in the WPIAL Class A championship game and was sidelined for the PIAA playoffs.

“It took him a long time to heal,” Batts said.

Jeannette expanded its 25-point halftime lead over Winchester Thurston with a 20-9 third-quarter edge before the teams played with a running clock for a portion of the fourth quarter, the fourth time in a row it has happened with the Jayhawks, including their 69-24 first-round victory over Burgettstown on Wednesday.

“We were picked last in the section, and we weren’t supposed to win a game,” said Walther, who completed his first season at Winchester Thurston after a four-year run at Serra Catholic. “These kids battled their butts off. They didn’t get rattled today. Instead of wilting when we got down big, they ended up winning the second quarter.

“Hey, we went 9-5. I can’t complain.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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