TYRONE — Matt Gehret has been in a number of great games during his three-year basketball career for the Altoona Mountain Lions.
And though the disappointment of Wednesday night’s 66-56 overtime loss to rival State College in the District 6 Class AAAA championship game in front of a packed house at the Tyrone Area Middle School was etched on his face, he also didn’t hesitate when asked where the game, a true classic, will rank in his memories.
“Definitely No. 1,” he said. “ Toughest game of the season. Funnest game of the season. I loved it.”
Then he paused.
“I just wish it would have ended differently.”
True enough, but that shouldn’t overshadow the superior effort by both teams, both of which overcame deficits, State College early and Altoona late, and both had a chance to clinch it in regulation.
Gehret’s athleticism and blocked shots ignited the Mountain Lions to a 23-9 lead, only to see it evaporate by midway through the third quarter when State guard Jamar Smack buried a 3-pointer to cap a 22-8 run that pulled the Little Lions even, 31-31.
“We let Smack take too much of the game from us,” Altoona coach Larry Betar said in a quiet hallway outside the Mountain Lion locker room. “He surprised us.”
While Smack’s quickness created a matchup problem en route to 29 points, State’s balance and its depth took an equal toll on Altoona.
The Little Lions started their comeback by relentlessly pounding the boards and aborting Altoona’s early knockout attempt. They got solid rebounding and extra effort from Jake Reeder and some timely 3-point shooting from 6-foot-5 sophomore Trevor Stark.
“We knew it was not going to be a picnic,” Betar said. “We played and planned perfectly for 32 minutes.”
But no more. Even Betar admitted his six-man rotation — he played seventh man Brady Gehret less than a minute in the first half — wore down.
“Some of our kids were just a little uncomfortable and nervous, unsettled,” he said. “I think the pressure got too us. I think we have enough to win in regulation with my rotation. We’re just not deep. Asking them to be tough enough in the overtime playing only six might have been a challenge for us.”
State coach Drew Frank thought so.
“They [Altoona] never stopped playing hard, but us going a legitimate nine deep made a difference in an overtime game,” he said.
Gehret and Lion point guard Alex Raymond combined for 35 points and all but four after halftime as the balance that keyed Altoona early — including Jarryd Burket’s two early 3-pointers — went away.
Each team led by as many as four in the second half before Gehret buried a clutch 3-pointer with 2:20 left. Then State’s Patrick St. Andrews and Raymond took turns making one of two free throws, with 9.4 and 5.9 seconds, respectively, and the game, to State’s relief, went to OT.
“In big-time situations, it seems Altoona comes out on the winning end more often than we have,” Frank said.
Not this time. The Little Lions, keyed by Smack, forced Altoona to chase and carried the extra period, 17-7.
‘‘Great game, great game,’’ Betar repeated. ‘‘As far as both teams competing hard and wanting to be successful, the community was treated to an excellent championship game.’’
Altoona will have to accept that as consolation because, as the district runnerup, a trip to Erie McDowell Saturday — and a meeting with former coach Kraig Hetz — is anything but.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.