TYRONE - Cambria Heights' first shot at Penns Valley this season was nothing to write home about.
The Highlanders were down three in the third quarter, but, making a more than hour trip for a Saturday afternoon contest after playing the night before, Heights turned the ball over about 20 times and lost by 17 to the deliberate, physical Rams.
Eric Nagel's team did gain one thing, though - knowledge.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Cambria Heights’ Josh Serafin shoots over Penns Valley’s Zach Engle during Monday’s game.
"It was the unknown down there," Nagel said. "Now we knew what they were going to bring to us."
The benefits of that familiarity showed when Heights got another crack at the Rams in the first round of the District 6 Class AA boys basketball playoffs on Monday night at Tyrone Area Middle School. The 13th-seeded Highlanders toyed with a major upset, staying close most of the game before finally succumbing, 44-40.
"We knew it was our last shot. We just went out there for the seniors and gave it everything we had," said Highlanders senior guard Zach Strasser, who led Heights with 11 points. "We knew they wanted to keep the score down, so we had to play them tough."
The Highlanders ended the year 8-15.
Heights battled back from an 11-point second quarter deficit to take a 25-24 lead at the 5:14 mark of the third quarter when Josh Serafin, who chipped in with nine points, made the third of three consecutive Highlander 3-pointers from the corner.
Penns Valley, though, answered right back, getting a trey from the top courtesy of forward Cameron Tobias to put the Rams back in front for good, although they never were able to get the buffer back to double figures. Dalton Ulmanic's free throw with 12.8 seconds left was needed to seal the victory for the No. 4 seeds, who improved to 18-4 and advanced to face Blairsville in the quarterfinals later this week.
Will Jackson and Luke Weaver fronted Penns Valley with 10 points apiece.
"They had two weeks to prepare. It's easier playing teams the second time and seeing what they do, and [Nagel] was prepared for us. They have nice outside shooters and a nice inside game," Penns Valley coach Terry Glunt said. "Would I have liked to win by 20? Of course. But the win will keep us going forward."
Penns Valley looked like it might run away with it early, scoring the first six points before a Strasser 3. Heights took an 11-9 lead in the early moments of the second quarter before Penns Valley score 13 straight points, but the Highlanders managed to slice the deficit to five by halftime when Serafin, the team's top scorer, hit a desperation 3-pointer just before the buzzer.
"Even when they had that run and took that big lead, we knew we still had a chance, because our guys hang in there, they make shots," Strasser said. "I think at any point our guys thought we had a chance."
Nagel said his team's determination and the schedule it played were what motivated him to enter the playoffs despite the losing record.
"They are the hardest-working group of kids we've ever had," Nagel said. "They come into practice every day and practice hard. We come in here against a team we lost to by  two weeks ago, and they come in and battle. We have the lead in the third quarter and lose by four."
The one thing Heights didn't do well was shoot free throws, making just 6 of 16, but Penns Valley was nearly as cold, going 14-for-26. Glunt said it was good to get tested right off the bat.
"It's a win. If it's a wake-up call, it's a wake-up call," Glunt said. "Hopefully we come out against Blairsville and are ready to play. We've had some big games this year, and the kids have stepped up. I expect them to again."
CAMBRIA HEIGHTS (40): Patrick 1 0-1 3, Strasser 3 3-5 11, Serafin 3 0-2 9, Bills 2 0-1 4, A. Huber 2 0-0 4, Milanesi 0 0-0 0, Ford 1 1-3 3, Lacue 2 2-4 6, Kline 0 0-0 0. Totals - 14 6-16 40.
PENNS VALLEY (44): Ulmanic 0 5-6 5, Jackson 3 4-7 10, Weaver 3 3-6 10, C. Tobias 2 2-2 7, Engle 4 0-4 8, Alexander 2 0-1 4, Johnson 0 0-0 0, Beamesderfer 0 0-0 0. Totals - 14 14-26 44.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Cambria Heights9 10 9 12-40
Penns Valley9 15 11 9 -44
3-point goals: Cambria Heights 6 (Strasser 2, Serafin 3, Patrick); Penns Valley 2 (Weaver, C. Tobias).
Records: Cambria Heights (8-15); Penns Valley (18-4).
Officials: Dave Pray, Steve Schaar, Ray Hoppel.