CLAYSBURG - If Juniata Valley and Northern Bedford needed any kind of a tuneup with the playoffs looming for both later this week, neither team could have scripted a better one than the battle which presented itself Saturday night.
Led by senior forward Caleb Taylor's 25 points and a key 3-point field goal by junior Konner Barton in the final seconds, Juniata Valley overcame an early deficit and prevailed down the stretch to outlast Northern Bedford, 66-65 in the Inter-County Conference boys championship game at the Claysburg-Kimmel High School gymnasium.
"This is awesome,'' Taylor said after joining his teammates for a championship picture at midcourt following the game. "Our goal the whole year was to win the ICC championship. We had finished in second place in the North Division before this season, and we wanted to take the next step this year, reach the championship game, and win it.''
The game went back and forth in the final minutes, with the lead changing hands four times after Taylor's floater from the short baseline tied the score 60-60.
Northern regained the lead, 62-60 when senior center Kyler Diehl cashed in an assist from senior guard Zane Snyder, whose 25 points tied Taylor for game-scoring honors.
Juniata Valley senior guard Gordon Gable drained his fourth 3-pointer of the night, a bomb from the top of the circle following Taylor's steal, to give Valley the lead back, 63-62 with 1:08 left.
Following a steal by Coltin Ebersole, Northern Bedford grabbed the lead back, 64-63 when freshman forward Jake Dasher scored off another assist from Snyder with 25 seconds remaining.
About 10 seconds later, Barton got free for Valley in the deep left corner and fired up a 3-point shot that hit nothing but net to give the Hornets a 66-64 lead.
"Konner hit a big 3-pointer there,'' Valley coach Ron Anders said. "He's a great kid who has worked so hard throughout the season, and I'm really happy for him that he made a shot like that.''
After Snyder hit one of two free throws with 10 seconds left to draw Northern Bedford to within a point, 66-65, the Black Panthers had a last-ditch chance for the win when Taylor missed a free throw and Dasher grabbed the rebound with two seconds left.
But after a timeout, Northern inbounded the ball from midcourt, and Valley forced senior forward Blake Over into a heavily-contested, desperation heave from the left side that had no chance.
"I'm so proud of our kids,'' Anders said. "Nobody expected us to win this league, and here we are. We got off to a slow start tonight, but I thought that if we pushed the pace, we could win. I thought that if Northern Bedford, with their height, was able to get us into a deliberate pace, they would win. This was a great high school basketball game, and I didn't expect anything different from these two teams tonight.''
Both squads enter the playoffs this Thursday night - Juniata Valley in District 6-A and Northern in District 5-AA - with identical 18-5 records.
Juniata Valley, which suffered the loss of starting junior guard Aaron Maysonet with a leg injury in the opening seconds of the game, fell behind, 21-13 after one quarter and 35-29 at intermission.
Northern Bedford got 18 points from Over and 17 from Diehl - both of whom stand 6-feet-5 - but the Black Panthers couldn't come up with the knockout punch.
"We got a lot of decent leads, but we couldn't put them away,'' NB coach Jason Free said. "They made good halftime adjustments to get shots they wanted against our zone [defense] in the second half.''
Valley got 16 points from junior guard Kordell Collins and 12 from Gable on the four 3-pointers.
"This was a hard-fought game, and a good tuneup for the playoffs,'' Anders said. "We played well, Northern Bedford is a great team, and this was a great game.''
Game notes: Taylor led all rebounders with 12 ... Diehl grabbed 11, Over nine, and Dasher seven for Northern Bedford ... Valley didn't take its first lead until Gable's 3-pointer with 2:35 left in the third quarter ... Valley opens playoff action against Portage, while Northern Bedford will host either Chestnut Ridge or Windber.
JUNIATA VALLEY (66): Taylor 12 0-1 25, Maysonet 0 0-0 0, Collins 5 4-6 16, Shawver 3 0-1 6, Gable 4 0-0 12, Grove 1 0-0 2, Grissinger 0 0-0 0, Gildea 0 0-0 0, Barton 2 0-0 5. Totals - 27 4-7 66.
NORTHERN BEDFORD (65): Ebersole 1 0-0 2, Snyder 7 8-13 25, Over 8 2-3 18, Dasher 1 1-2 3, Diehl 7 3-4 17, Petrou 0 0-0 0, Cherry 0 0-0 0. Totals - 24 14-22 65.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Juniata Valley13 16 18 19 - 66
Northern Bedford21 14 15 15 - 65
3-point goals: Juniata Valley 8 (Gable 4, Collins 2, Barton, Taylor); Northern Bedford 3 (Snyder 3).
Records: Juniata Valley (18-5); Northern Bedford (18-5).
Officials: Justin Fischer, Craig Elbin, Rod Brumbaugh.