ALTOONA — Blairsville couldn’t wait to get on the basketball court and put its disappointing end to the regular season in the rearview mirror.
The Bobcats got out to a big lead early and dominated throughout, defeating Juniata, 69-43, in a District 6 Class AA boys’ first-round playoff game Monday night at Altoona Field House.
[PHOTO: Colton McMillan pulled up for a shot while Juniata's Tyler Clark defended. (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)]
Fifth-seeded Blairsville (17-3) opened the game on a 20-2 run and took out some frustration after losing out on the Heritage Conference championship in the final week of the regular season. Juniata (11-10), the No. 12 seed, never got the opportunity to build confidence from an early lead or a key basket.
“It’s important as soon as that ball goes up in the air to show them who’s going to dictate the game,” Blairsville coach Mark DeMarines said. “We’re the favorite here, we’re going to bully this, you’re going to have to match our intensity. Going out and hitting them in the face with that is something we’ve stressed. It’s something we’ve worked on all year.”
“They came out with an intensity that we didn’t match,” Juniata coach Al Ream said.
In the previous week, the Bobcats downgraded from holding the inside track to the conference championship to a likely share of the crown, then to having no title at all.
Blairsville lost out on a chance to likely win the conference outright by falling to Homer-Center, 60-59, at home last Monday. That created a tie atop the conference standings, but Marion Center whipped the Bobcats, 57-38, on Friday in Blairsville, giving the outright championship to Homer-Center.
So, even as Blairsville moved on to the playoffs, it was still smarting from the loss.
“I was chomping at the bit to get these guys in the gym tonight and see how we would respond from that loss, and I’m pleased,” DeMarines said. “We let the conference slip through our hands, and we’re still sour about that, so we come out every night and try to avenge that loss a little bit.”
Coincidentally, Marion Center outscored Blairsville 16-4 in the first quarter on Friday.
“You’ve got to come out strong,” Blairsville senior Colton McMillan said. “We learned that Friday.”
McMillan scored 12 points in the first quarter, fueling Blairsville’s opening run. The 5-foot-11 guard shifted his way into the teeth of the defense and made enough space to score.
He finished with 20 points. Troy Williams scored a game-high 23, and Cameron Livingston added 12.
“He doesn’t like to settle for anything,” DeMarines said of McMillan. “If you told him, ‘There’s a 12-footer there, shoot that 12-footer,’ he’d say, ‘I can make that 12-footer a 10-footer.’ … He’s never really satisfied with a shot unless he’s getting to the rim.”
McMillan also played an important role in Blairsville forcing 19 turnovers.
“I challenged him,” DeMarines said. “I put him on a freshman — one of their best players is a freshman, (Tyler) Clark. He handles the ball well and has a nice shot. I told Colton, you’re a senior, this kid’s a freshman. Show him that you’ve got the experience and take it to him. And he played really well defensively with a couple steals, a couple breakaways and just saw the floor.”
Playing in its first playoff game in eight years, and its first in District 6, Juniata never got the chance to seriously challenge Blairsville’s lead.
“They beat us to the punch,” Ream said. “Maybe if we would’ve gotten some early buckets there, it could’ve been a different ballgame and our confidence may have risen, but tonight it didn’t happen for us.”
Blairsville advanced to face No. 4-seed Penns Valley, which held off No. 13 Cambria Heights, 44-40, on Monday. The site, date and time for the quarterfinal game has yet to be determined.
“We know we’re capable now,” McMillan said. “We’ve got to come out like that every game.”