WPIAL champion Laurel Highlands bounced from PIAA tournament in 1st round

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Friday, March 6, 2020 | 9:56 PM


Laurel Highlands had grown accustomed to winning close games, almost to the point of expecting them to happen.

Good, down-to-the-wire games had become their calling card in the playoffs.

The Mustangs won’t blow you out, they said, but they’ll give you quite a show.

Call it a law of averages or simply running into a better team, but the WPIAL scene-stealers finally wound up on the other end of a tight finish Friday night in the opening round of the PIAA Class 5A playoffs.

Despite rallying from an early 17-point deficit and closing the gap to one in the closing seconds, the Mustangs fell to York Suburban, 57-56, in front of a sellout crowd at Greensburg Salem.

Another thriller for the WPIAL champions, but with a different result. And with it, the end of their season.

The Mustangs’ four previous playoff games had been decided by a total of 11 points, including a pair of two-point wins over Penn Hills and Thomas Jefferson, and a one-point victory over Mars in the WPIAL championship.

Fans showed up in droves to see Laurel Highlands freshman sensation Rodney Gallagher play, and he did not disappoint. Gallagher, clearly distraught after a tough loss, scored 32 points, including 18 in the second half. But had little help offensively against a long and athletic Trojans team that looked anything but a ninth-place finisher out of District 3.

“We came out slow and didn’t work hard enough,” Gallagher said. “We won the WPIAL championship and thought this was going to be easy.”

The Mustangs (17-9), WPIAL champs for the first time since 1968 (they also won the PIAA that year), nearly came all the way back, chipping away at a deficit that reached 19-2 and 21-5. York Suburban (22-7) led at the half, 27-18, and 40-33 after three quarters.

Gallagher had 11 in the fourth when the Mustangs really made their run at the Trojans. But each time Laurel Highlands made a push, York Suburban pushed back.

“That was the longest team we have seen,” Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger said. “Their two guys inside were powerful. We don’t have that muscular stature. We’re not long, we’re lean.”

The Trojans’ size hindered the Mustangs’ ability to get to the rim. Nothing was easy.

Getting open space against the Trojans was like finding a parking spot before the game. Good luck.

“The only team we saw with size like that was McKeesport,” Gallagher said. “They’re a really good team.”

A player not named Gallagher or Tyvaughn Long did not score for Laurel Highlands until Keandre Cook made a layup with 5:19 left in the fourth.

For three-plus quarters, two players carried the scoring load. Yet somehow, a comeback took shape.

Long finished with 12 points but the rest of the team scored a total of 12. Laurel Highlands had not been to the state playoffs since 2006.

Gallagher hit a pull-up jumper — a shot that is looking more like his trademark move — but Savon Sutton buried a 3-pointer to make it 47-39.

Keandre Cook scored inside for the Mustangs off a rebound, but Anthony Brown made a layup on the other end to keep the Trojans ahead by eight.

Gallagher made a 3 from the top of the key but Brown was hacked on a make. He missed the free throw but made a short jumper on the next possession and Aidan Hughley scored on a drive to push the advantage to 55-44.

Time for that Laurel Highlands late-game magic, right? It sure looked like it. Tim Smith connected on back-to-back 3-pointers within a minute of each other to make it 55-50 with 1:11 to play.

Gallagher drove in for two with a minute left to tighten it to 55-52.

“When we woke up, it was back and forth,” Gallagher said. “We had our chances.”

Hughley was whistled for an offensive foul with 50 seconds to go to keep the momentum with the Mustangs.

More Gallagher. He slashed through the lane again, but this time dished softly to Nick Egnot for an easy layup that made it 55-54 with 39 seconds left.

“Rodney was brilliant,” Hauger said. “We did a nice job rebounding, but we had some costly turnovers. It was tough to get post-up baskets.”

Camden Brewer, who made four 3-pointers and tied Brown with 16 points, took a drive baseline and made a tough layup to put the Trojans back up by three (57-54) with 11.6 left.

Laurel Highlands called a timeout to set up a 3 for Gallagher. He got the shot off but missed. Cook put back the rebound and time expired.

Hughley had a team-high 18 points for York Suburban, which will play New Oxford (22-5) in the second round on Tuesday. New Oxford won the first state playoff game in its history with a 70-48 victory over Thomas Jefferson.

Pitt coach Jeff Capel was in attendance to watch Gallagher.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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