CLARION — Whether the opponent was a traditional District 9 power or a pickup team of random players, Homer-Center was bound and determined to get a state playoff victory.
The Wildcats played tough defense, particularly in the second half, and pushed their way to a 47-45 victory over Elk County Catholic in a PIAA Class A first-round boys’ basketball game Friday night at Clarion University’s Tippin Gymnasium. It was Homer-Center’s first state playoff win since 2009.
[PHOTO: Homer-Center senior Darren Carr stole the ball from the Crusaders' Brandon Schlimm during the second half of Friday's game at Clarion University. Carr and the Wildcats gave up just 14 second-half points. (James J. Nestor/Gazette)]
“They have an identity now — a team that went and got its state win,” Homer-Center coach Bob Rado said.
“You can prepare all you want, but you can’t get inside the kids and tell them to give everything they have, and they did that. They wanted this game in the worst way, and, hats off to them, they got it.”
“I’m on cloud nine,” Homer-Center senior guard Joe Capitosti said. “Words can’t even explain how I feel. I’ve been waiting all year to win a game in states.”
Homer-Center (23-3) advances to face Vincentian Academy, a 95-85 first-round winner over Cochranton, in the second round Tuesday at a site and time to be determined.
The Wildcats got a tougher draw than they expected in the first round. Due to face the second seed out of District 9, Homer-Center was thought to have avoided an early matchup with the Crusaders (23-5), who had claimed the first seed in their district playoffs. However, Elk County Catholic got knocked off by Ridgway in the title game, also at Clarion.
“I was up here last Saturday for that championship game and I (brought) all kind of notes on Ridgway,” Rado said.
“Not seeing them was a big change,” Homer-Center sophomore guard John Capitosti said. “We had to prepare differently, and that’s what it took.”
Homer-Center did a strong enough job defensively on Elk County Catholic’s inside game, the Crusaders’ normally strong 3-point shooting went cold and the Wildcats built their lead in the second half.
The Wildcats went into the half trailing 31-29, but outscored Elk County Catholic 11-4 in the third quarter. The Crusaders shot just 28.6 percent (6 of 21) in the second half. Overall, they were 4 of 16 (25 percent) from 3-point range and 7 of 19 (36.8 percent) from the foul line.
Elk County Catholic scored 14 second-half points, as many as the Crusaders scored in the second quarter.
“We made mistakes, but I’ll tell you what, we made up for the mistakes in the tenacious defense we played,” Rado said.
“We really wanted to keep the ball out of the middle and try to keep it out of 32’s (Cory Huff) hands as much as we could,” Joe Capitosti said.
The 6-foot-5 Huff got his 18 points and he grabbed 19 rebounds, but the Wildcats were able to limit his scoring damage to seven points in the second half, while still contesting Elk County Catholic’s 3-point shooters.
Pushing the tempo helped the Wildcats’ defense in the second half. Playing with a short bench on a college-sized court, Rado waited until the second half to unleash his hounds.
“We saw a little Achilles heel in the first half. It seemed like at the end of the first half they were getting tired, and we wanted to push the ball up the floor,” the Homer-Center coach said. “We figured if they were tired, those 3s wouldn’t fall as well. And the other thing, the second half we put more pressure on the guards so they didn’t get the looks they were getting in the first half to slip it in to the big guy.
“We rotated so nice and executed the defense. It was a hard defense to go against. I can’t even point out one guy. Everybody had a role in that win, and everybody came through tonight.”
Offensively, Joe Capitosti led the Wildcats with 18 points. John Capitosti scored 10, and Darren Carr and John Ireland had seven each.
“They played well and Coach Rado had his team prepared,” Elk County Catholic coach Aaron Straub said. “The keys to the game were, our third quarter was lousy and whenever we had separation in the second quarter, 28-22, we weren’t able to keep that separation.”
Homer-Center struggled at the free throw line down the stretch, and Ian Herzing’s banked 3-pointer with 5.5 seconds left brought the Crusaders within 47-45, but they were unable to get anything better than a three-quarters-court shot at the buzzer after Homer-Center missed a couple more free throws.
“When you miss those first couple, it’s kind of hard to get back into a groove,” John Capitosti said.
It was Elk County Catholic’s ugly foul shooting that ended up more of a difference.
“We got into foul trouble,” Joe Capitosti said. “Thank God they missed their free throws, or else we wouldn’t have won.”
Homer-Center’s last state win came over VisionQuest in 2009. The Wildcats lost to Elk County Catholic in the second round that year.
“I wanted to extend the season and continue playing, obviously,” Joe Capitosti said. “I love the game so much; I really don’t want this senior year to end. I explained to (the underclassmen), they may never get an opportunity to play in states again, let alone win one.”
“Now they can take it a step further,” Rado said. “We just have to prepare, because every step of the way you’re going to go against a higher-caliber team. We just have to bring our game.”