The Penn Cambria boys turned their PIAA Class AA playoff opener into a virtual remake of "Rocky," playing out on a basketball court instead of a boxing ring.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they couldn't turn it into "Rocky II," the one where the underdog Balboa wins.
Penn Cambria withstood state power Greensburg Central Catholic's barrage in the first half to grab the lead early in the fourth quarter. However, the Centurions, who got 21 points apiece from the guard tandem of Zach Herman and Brian Graytok, pulled away in the last two minutes for a 66-56 win on Saturday afternoon at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse, overcoming A.J. Leahey's 22-point effort in the process.
Senior forward Devin Lawhead chipped in with 14 points for the Panthers. Penn Cambria trailed 38-21 at the 6:53 mark of the third quarter but went ahead 51-50 on Leahey's fallaway 3-pointer with 6:03 left in the game before Central Catholic went on an 8-0 run to keep at arm's length the rest of the way.
"Our heart [kept us in it]. We knew we could play with them. We just came out flat. That made it tougher. We battled," said Leahey, choking back tears. "It's definitely tough. I can't believe I played my last game with a great group of guys."
Leahey scored 14 in the second half and wound up with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots, as well. The District 6 champion Panthers closed the year 20-5.
"Even spotting them 16 points at halftime, we had the lead," Penn Cambria coach Jim Ronan said. "We battled our guts out. That's a good team. They're ranked No. 2 in the state, and we had a chance to win it in the fourth. That's all you can ask as a coach."
Penn Cambria even got the ball back on James Mardula's steal after Leahey's go-ahead 3-pointer - the Panthers' zone press was pivotal in the comeback, playing a part in 13 second-half turnovers by the Centurions. Penn Cambria, though, turned the ball right back over and didn't score again for more than three minutes.
"We had them on their heels. If we could have kept it up that intensity for just one more minute, I think we would have had it," Ronan said.
Leahey made another trey with 2:11 left to get Penn Cambria back within four, but the Centurions scored the game's last six points. Central Catholic improved to 23-2. Surprise losers in the WPIAL quarterfinals, the Centurions next face District 10 runner-up Lakeview, a 44-40 winner against Quaker Valley, in Wednesday's second round.
"They're a good team. They're tough. They're strong. Teams like that, the farther they get down, the harder they play. They didn't want this to be their last game," Centurions coach Greg Bisignani said of the Panthers. "I told the kids after the game, if you told me we were going to be up 16 at halftime, I'd have said, 'No way.' If you told me we were going to be up 16 at halftime and lose the lead in the second half, I'd say, 'No way.' My hat's off to them, but our kids also didn't give up and played hard."
After Collin Bisignani's free throw 1:07 into the second half gave Central Catholic a 17-point lead for the second time in the contest, Penn Cambria went on a 25-8 run to erase the margin in exactly eight minutes. Leahey put back a missed 3-pointer to draw the Panthers within a bucket, then Nathan Keagy, who scored all eight of his points in the second half, tied it on a loose-ball layup tipped over from Mack Behe.
"It all started with the great group of guys we have. Coach said in the locker room that we love each other," Lawhead said. "We never gave up."
Lawhead even made just his sixth 3-pointer of the season during the comeback.
"I just had the open shot," Lawhead said. "I shoot 3s in practice a lot. I just don't usually shoot them in a game unless I'm wide open. I knew when it left my fingertips that it was going in."
As memorable as the rally was, the first half was just as forgettable for Penn Cambria. Graytok got two quick fouls on Behe, and he and Herman, who made three 3s in the first two quarters, combined for 31 points before the intermission. Central Catholic utilized a quickness advantage in the backcourt.
"We knew we'd have to run. It'd be hard to try to set up in the halfcourt against their size," Herman said. "We tried to make it an up-tempo game in the first half. I think we did a pretty good job of that."
Ronan pulled his five senior starters in the final minute of the game and put his other three seniors on the floor to finish up.
"This is a great group of guys. I'll remember all the fun we had at practice, all the fun we had at the games. We had the best coaching staff around," Leahey said. "We had a great year."
GREENSBURG CENTRAL CATHOLIC (66): Herman 5 8-12 21, Hyland 1 5-7 7, Graytok 8 5-9 21, Swan 2 4-4 9, Bisignani 0 1-2 1,Marshall 2 0-2 4, Guiser 0 0-0 0, Sebastiani 1 0-1 3. Totals - 19 23-37 66.
PENN CAMBRIA (56): J. Mardula 0 0-0 0, Behe 2 2-2 6, Leahey 9 0-0 22, Keagy 4 0-2 8, Lawhead 6 1-2 14, Tsikalas 3 0-0 6, Schwaderer 0 0-0 0, M. Mardula 0 0-0 0, Przybys 0 0-0 0, Hite 0 0-0 0, Chirdon 0 0-0 0, Bastian 0 0-0 0. Totals - 24 3-6 56.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Greensburg Central Catholic17 20 9 20-66
Penn Cambria10 11 21 14-56
3-point goals: Greensburg Central Catholic 5 (Herman 3, Swan, Sebastiani); Penn Cambria 5 (Leahey 4, Lawhead).
Officials: John Thompson, Steve Searer, Jeff Heider.
Team records: Greensburg Central Catholic (23-2); Penn Cambria (20-5).