Thomas Jefferson boys use strong shooting to pull away from Kiski Area

Thursday, February 22, 2024 | 10:12 PM

Playoff games typically are decided by which team can make timely plays, and it was Thomas Jefferson that used a strong offensive performance to hold off Kiski Area on Thursday night, 73-57, in a WPIAL Class 5A playoff game at Gateway.

The No. 4 Jaguars (21-3) advanced to the WPIAL semifinals for the first time since 2019-20, where they will take on No. 1 Moon.

“I was so proud of our kids,” TJ coach Dom DeCicco said. “Against a zone, because we don’t see much zone all year — and Kiski plays a very good one — I thought our kids moved the ball great. We were cutting through the middle very well and got the ball to the right areas.”

Evan Berger and Nick Trklja led the charge for Thomas Jefferson, each scoring 18 points with two 3s each to help unlock Kiski Area’s zone. Brody Evans added 13 points that included a trio of 3-pointers.

For the Cavaliers (15-8), Colin Keller finished with a team-high 14 points, including four 3s. Noah Thimons also connected on four 3s for 12 points, and Isaiah Gonzalez and Amaree Gonzalez added 10 each.

“There’s two things that you can control: your attitude and your effort. I thought we controlled our attitude at times, but our effort was not there,” Kiski coach Corey Smith said. “Two-point game coming out of halftime, and that third quarter destroyed us.

“The game plan was to take their 3s away, but we didn’t get that. They beat our man and then they kicked, and they had to be at least 60, 65 percent on threes tonight. When a team shoots it well versus our zone, it cracks our zone.”

The Jaguars carried a 13-10 lead into the second quarter then opened up a 21-14 lead with less than four minutes to go in the first half.

But the Cavaliers responded with a 9-4 run to end the second quarter as Isaiah and Amaree Gonzalez got involved. Isaiah made a layup before Amaree made another one and then beat the buzzer from deep 3-point range off an inbound from under Kiski’s basket. That shot made Kiski’s deficit 25-23 heading into the break.

It wasn’t until the third quarter that Thomas Jefferson really broke Kiski’s zone defense open. Evans scored 11 of his 13 points in the final two quarters, Trklja added 10 of his 18 and Berger had half of his 18 in the same stretch.

“I thought Brody made some big shots for us at key points in the game,” DeCicco said. “For a sophomore, Nick played like a senior, he was tremendous. I thought Evan was the best player on the court, and I think he’s one of the five best players in the WPIAL.”

The Cavaliers opened the third quarter with a set that provided Keller with a wide-open 3 that he connected on, giving his squad a 26-25 lead, but that would be Kiski’s last lead of the contest.

Trklja responded with a layup, Evans hit a three and Noah Prosser came up with a steal and layup to flip the score in Thomas Jefferson’s direction at 32-26. The Cavaliers mounted pressure with two straight threes, but Trklja made two free throws in between to keep the score at 34-32 in favor of TJ.

The next two makes were among the biggest shots of the game, as Evans hit a corner 3, and Berger sank a long-range shot through contact to come up with a four-point play. Suddenly, the Jaguars carried a 41-32 lead with just under five minutes of action left in the third.

Kiski clawed its way back to 46-42 as Keller hit on another trifecta, but another timely response came from Joey Mendyk to end the third frame at 49-42.

The Cavaliers switched to man defense in the final quarter, but the Jaguars were able to find similar success.

When Thimons nailed a three to make the score 55-49, Evans responded with a triple of his own. When the Cavaliers scored four straight with around four minutes left, the Jaguars scored five straight.

Berger and Prosser knocked down free throws to end the scoring at 71-57. Thomas Jefferson went 9 for 10 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.

For the Cavaliers, there’s still a chance at PIAA play.

“I’m proud of my guys,” Smith said. “There’s only a certain amount of teams that can say they were in the elite eight of (Class) 5A. There’s only a certain amount of teams that make it into the playoffs in (Class) 5A. Our season’s not over yet. We’ve still got a chance to get into the state playoffs and make a run there. Losing sucks, but it’s not over yet.”

For the Jaguars, they will have to battle another 21-3 squad in top-ranked Moon on Monday with a trip to the WPIAL championship on the line.

“We know that we need to play well on the defensive end to advance,” DeCicco said. “We’re gonna get our shots even if we’re not shooting well, but if we defend then we give ourselves a chance. Our goal is to win a championship, so we’ll see what Moon brings us.”

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