EBENSBURG - Time and time again, coaches preach that free throws can win or lose a game.
That was evident Wednesday night at Central Cambria High School.
Bellwood-Antis took advantage of Westmont Hilltop's inaccuracy from the line - and converted its own chances - as the third-seeded Blue Devils upended the second-seeded Hilltoppers, 53-49, in the District 6 Class AA boys basketball semifinals.
As a result, Bellwood will be playing in its first district title game since the Blue Devils beat Mount Union in 2003.
"This is a great win," Bellwood-Antis coach Brent Gerwert said. "Those two teams, we worked hard all year to get to where we were, to get the seeds we got. I think that either team deserved to be in the championship game.
"I think this is a great win for us because no one thought, coming in, that we could get there."
Westmont (19-5) all but gift-wrapped the win for Bellwood (20-5) in the final minutes, though.
The Hilltoppers made only one of their five fourth-quarter attempts from the free-throw line - all in the last 1:02 of the game. Three times, Westmont shooters missed the front end of 1-and-1 opportunities, and two of those were with the lead.
The Blue Devils' Noah Davis and Josh Steffen were able to erase a three-point deficit on back-to-back trips down the floor. And after Westmont's Mike Vliet was the third victim to miss his front-end chance, Davis gave Bellwood a 51-48 lead with a pair of his own free throws.
Joe Glennon made 1-of-2 from the line on the Hilltoppers' next possession, but Westmont ran out of time.
"When you miss three front-ends, [twice] with the lead, you don't deserve to win," Westmont Hilltop coach Dave Roman said. "You've got to make those. The game is right there. Give them credit. Their foul-line defense was outstanding tonight."
"We got down by three in the fourth quarter and we didn't panic," Gerwert said. "We executed our plays and good things happened."
With 12 seconds to go, Steffen picked up the foul-shooting bug and missed the front end of a 1-and-1 chance, but on the rebound, Davis was able to get his hands on the ball for a held-ball call and Bellwood maintained possession.
He capped the contest with two more freebies.
"I just knew I had to step up for my teammates when they needed me," Davis said. "I'm glad I did and I'm glad we were able to pull it out."
Davis finished the game with 12 points - all in the final two quarters - but he nearly didn't get an opportunity to provide his second-half burst.
He picked up two player-control fouls in the first 3:40 and sat out until there were 55 seconds left in the second quarter.
His time on the court didn't last long as he committed his third foul less than 20 seconds later, but Bellwood stayed within striking distance and was only down, 25-21, at halftime.
"Those were dumb fouls," Davis said. "I kept lowering my shoulder and then on the third one I wasn't thinking at all. It was tough just sitting there."
"If someone would have told me that we would have been down four with [Davis] sitting on the bench for the majority of the first half, I would have told them they were nuts," Gerwert said. "To his credit, he came out and played a great second half."
Westmont led by as many as nine points in the first quarter during Davis' absence, but Steffen jump-started a 9-0 run with 8 seconds left in the period. The run lasted until the 5:07 mark of the second after Alex Dionis hit a 3-pointer and David Wolfe and Seth Worthing each hit a bucket.
Dionis had a team-high 13 points, while Steffen added 10 and Wolfe had nine.
"In order for us to win, we have to have other people contribute other than Noah and David," Gerwert said. "I think we got that tonight."
The Blue Devils turned up their defense in the second half. They forced the Hilltoppers into 11 second-half turnovers after creating just three in the first.
Bellwood also kept Quentin Brandon in check for much of the contest. He had a game-high 18 points.
"Defensively, I can't say enough about what we did," Gerwert said. "We came out, we had a game plan and we stuck to it. This was probably the best game defensively that we've played all year.
"I said that if we hold [Brandon] to 18 points, we win the game."
Bellwood-Antis advances to play Bishop McCort in Saturday night's district final. The fourth-seeded Crushers upset top-seeded Tyrone, 52-46, in Wednesday's other semifinal.
"We played Tyrone three times this year and we didn't want to play them again unless it was for the district title," Gerwert said of the possibility of playing the Eagles again. "We definitely have a lot of work to do. We have two days to prepare for [Bishop McCort] and that's what we're going to do."
BELLWOOD-ANTIS (53): Steffen 4 1-3 10, Dionis 5 0-0 13, Sinisi 0 0-0 0, Wolfe 4 0-2 9, Davis 4 4-4 12, Sisto 1 0-0 2, S. Worthing 3 0-0 7, C. Worthing 0 0-0 0. Totals 21-49 5-9 53.
WESTMONT HILLTOP (49): Glennon 4 3-5 12, Flick 2 0-1 4, Vliet 2 0-1 5, Hamer 4 2-2 10, Brandon 7 1-4 18. Totals 19-43 6-13 49.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Bellwood-Antis8 13 12 20 - 53
Westmont Hilltop15 10 10 14 - 49
3-point goals: Bellwood-Antis 6-16 (Steffen, Dionis 3, Wolfe, S. Worthing), Westmont Hilltop 5-14 (Glennon, Vliet, Brandon 3).
Records: Bellwood-Antis (20-5), Westmont Hilltop (19-5).