EBENSBURG - The Northern Cambria High School boys basketball team missed 18 free throws in their District 6 playoff opener on Monday night and lived to tell about it.
Jeff Hogan led all five Colt starters in double figures with a game-high 20 points, and Adam Polites and Josh Bonatesta made two 3-pointers apiece in the fourth quarter as the defending district Class A champs, now up to Class AA and seeded fifth, advanced to the quarterfinals by virtue of a hard-fought 71-66 win over No. 12 Richland in a frenetically-played first-round game at Bishop Carroll High School.
The Colts will have a few more days to work on improving that 15-for-33 foul shooting before taking on fourth-seeded Tyrone, a 66-58 winner over West Branch, on Friday at a site and time to be announced.
"Winning a playoff game always feels good," Hogan said after his team improved to 19-4. "We knew coming in it was going to be huge, and we knew, if we won, it was going to feel great."
After leading by 10 at the half, Northern Cambria trailed by three entering the fourth quarter. They held the Rams scoreless for a 2:50 stretch at the end of the game, though - getting blocked shots from Hogan and 5-foot-8 Derek Bearer - to pull it out.
"Tonight, our experience showed. To battle through the adversity that we did shows that we've been here before," Northern Cambria coach Dan Weber said. "In the third quarter, they put it to us. That's when I saw a group of kids in that fourth quarter that got hungry."
The teams combined for 19 3-pointers, twice having stretches in the second half where NC and Richland swapped off making four consecutive treys between them. However, Adam Polites, the Colts' 1,000-point career scorer, made the one on the deep wing with 2:37 left from which Richland could not answer, giving Northern Cambria a 67-64 advantage.
Polites had been 1-for-5 from 3-point range heading into the fourth quarter, but made both his attempts in the final eight minutes. He and Bearer finished with 12 points each. Bonatesta netted 17, and Nick Lee ended up with 10.
"I've been shooting pretty well lately, so tonight surprised me a little bit. When I had open shots, they just wouldn't fall. Every shot it seemed would rim out," said Polites, a 6-foot-3 guard.
Richland closed the season 10-13, despite 19 points from Aaron Miller, 15 from Luke Shertzer, 12 from Kyle Flick and 10 off the bench from Ryan Ball. The Rams were in a tough position most of the game because of foul problems - they were whistled for 14 in the first half, including three on Flick and starting center Matt Shaffer along with two on Shertzer.
"I wanted to get [Northern Cambria] tired and go more full court, but, with the foul trouble in the first half, we were giving them automatic points. It hindered us putting pressure on," Richland coach Greg Burke said.
Richland had gotten up early, taking a 16-13 lead into the second quarter when Flick stole the ball as Northern Cambria attempted to play for one shot and laid it in with 2.7 seconds left. Hogan, though, took it on his shoulders in the second quarter, using an array of jukes and spins to score nine in the period.
"When there's certain personnel on the floor, we run different plays. They had a couple of guys out there that our coach thought we could take advantage of, and we did that," Hogan said.
Polites said his team knew not to take the Rams lightly.
"I watched them on film. They looked decent," he said. "They're better than their record."