LORETTO - A.J. Leahey started the season by driving some of his teammates to Laurel Highlands Conference basketball media day.
On Saturday night, he took the Panthers to the promised land.
Leahey went 5-for-6 from 3-point range, finishing with a game-high 24 points to go along with 11 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals, and Penn Cambria's defense locked up Northern Cambria as the Panthers left St. Francis University's DeGol Arena with the school's first District 6 basketball trophy in 10 years, taking the Class AA final, 63-43, before a packed house.
The second-seeded Panthers improved to 20-4 and will play WPIAL sixth-place team Greensburg Central Catholic on March 9 at a site to be announced. Northern Cambria, seeded fifth entering the tournament, still advances to interdistricts for the fourth year in a row with a 21-5 mark and gets District 7's third-place team, Apollo-Ridge, the same day.
Mack Behe complemented Leahey with 19 points, and Nathan Keagy added 10 for the Panthers. Adam Polites and Josh Bonatesta led Northern Cambria with 15 and 12, respectively.
Winning the title was an affirmation for Leahey, who already has a scholarship to Pitt-Johnstown and became the school's all-time leading scorer during his senior season.
"It's great to go out with a championship. It's really nice," Leahey said.
Leahey smiled, showing emotion he often keeps under wraps. During the game, he even did an uncharacteristic fist-pump after making a 3-pointer with 5:48 to go in the first half.
"In the locker room, he's fiery. You usually don't see that emotion from him on the court," Behe said. "Being in the district final, he's hungry. He's not going to let anything stop him from getting it."
"It's the district championship game. You've got to be crazy for that. If you're not, there's something wrong with you," Leahey said.
"They're all great, but he's a special player," Northern Cambria coach Dan Weber said of the 6-foot-7 Panther wing, "We've preached in years past when we went on this nice run that big-time players step up on a big-time stage. Tonight you saw that with A.J. Leahey."
Leahey did his damage despite missing his first four shots - NC's 5- 10 Nick Lee emphatically blocking one - and playing sparingly in the second half before fouling out with 2:24 left. Even before he found his shooting stroke, though, he was making things happen by assisting on the Panthers' second and third field goals, grabbing five rebounds and recording one of Penn Cambria's six rejections.
Then he found his scoring touch.
"When he tells me to put a play on for him, that's when I know he's locked in. Multiple times he said, 'Run it. Run it.' And every time he did, it was nothing but net," Penn Cambria coach Jim Ronan said.
Penn Cambria led by 12 at the end of one quarter and 19 in the second before Northern Cambria finished the first half on a 10-0 run. However, Leahey made a trey to open the second half, then Behe hit another along the wing before a Leahey put-back stretched the margin back to 17 at 40-23.
The Panthers were in front by as many as 24.
Hampered inside by Penn Cambria's overwhelming size and frustrated on the perimeter by the Panthers' length, Northern Cambria ended up just 11-for-49 from the floor.
"They were up in us tighter than what we're used to. Usually, our guards are quick enough to get around them. Tonight, that wasn't the case," said Polites, who had to step well behind the arc for his three 3-pointers. "Usually, we don't face three guys [6-3 or taller]. We can get a mismatch."
At 20.6 points, Polites actually was averaging just a tenth of a point less than Leahey coming in, but Behe, an all-state linebacker in football, stuck to him like glue most of the game.
"We just got the momentum going our way, and we finished the game with that momentum. They never got back into it," Behe said. "Polites is a great player. I just tried to get up in his grill and make it hard for him."
Ronan and assistant coaches Jason Grassi and Guido Fabbri were members of Penn Cambria's 1996 District 6 championship team. To psych up their players during the playoff run, they showed them tapes of playoff games from 17 years ago.
"We were really pumped up for this. We've been preparing all week," said Keagy, who scored six in the fourth quarter after Behe tallied 10 in the third. "The practices we had were the best practices of the whole season."
Always a team with a lot of potential but never quite able to put it all together - Ronan said in the middle of the season they always won ugly - Penn Cambria dropped three games in a three-week stretch of late December and early January. Since then, the Panthers have won 10 of 11.
"The win the other night against Bishop McCort got a monkey off our back, but, tonight, we've been talking about it for two years now," Ronan said. "We've been training spring, summer fall, five, six days a week to get to this point. I told the guys last week you want to go out and put on a show. That's exactly what they did."
PENN CAMBRIA (63): J. Mardula 0 0-1 0, Behe 8 1-2 19, Leahey 9 1-2 24, Keagy 5 0-1 10, Lawhead 2 1-2 5, Tsikalas 0 2-2 2, Schwaderer 0 0-0 0, M. Mardula 1 0-0 3, Przybys 0 0-0 0, Hite 0 0-0 0, Chirdon 0 0-0 0, George 0 0-0 0, Bastian 0 0-0 0, Kost 0 0-0 0, Slatko 0 0-0 0. Totals - 25 5-10 63.
NORTHERN CAMBRIA (43): D.Bearer 0 0-1 0, Polites 3 6-6 15, Bonatesta 4 4-5 12, N. Lee 0 2-2 2, Hogan 3 5-6 11, Atkins 0 02 0, Eckenrode 0 1-2 1, T. Olish 0 0-0 0, Jennings 0 0-0 0, Hartman 0 0-0 0, Z. Lee 1 0-0 2. Totals - 11 18-24 43.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Penn Cambria17 15 20 11-63
Northern Cambria 5 18 9 11-43
3-point goals: Penn Cambria 8 (Leahey 5, Behe 2, M. Mardula); Northern Cambria 3 (Polites 3).
Officials: Jim Racchini, Doug Steve, Todd Parker.
Team records: Penn Cambria (20-4); Northern Cambria (21-5).