WINGATE - Starting seniors Manny Span, Tony Acrie and Jaret Berardinelli were familiar with the gymnasium at Bald Eagle Area High School before Monday's District 6 Class AAAA semifinal game against Central Mountain.
It's the place where their last two seasons have ended in heartbreak.
Span and company made sure it didn't happen again.
The 6-foot-4 senior dominated the paint, scoring a game-high 17 points and pulling down 15 rebounds, as Altoona advanced to the championship game with a 52-42 win.
"It's a big weight off our shoulders," Span said. "But we know it's not over. We still have Thursday night, but to come here and finally win after two long years feels really good."
The Mountain Lions' opponent will be a familiar one, though perhaps an unexpected one. State College, the defending district champion, entered the playoffs despite a 2-20 regular-season record and after a quarterfinal win over Hollidaysburg, matched its regular season win total with a 49-44 upset of top-seeded Mifflin County Monday.
Altoona and State College will play for the title Thursday night at 8:30 in DeGol Arena.
"It's going to be tough no matter who we play," Altoona coach Paul Hasson said. "We just have to keep doing what we're doing. We need to get the ball inside to set up the outside shot and first and foremost play good defense."
Monday night, the inside game was working so well early that Altoona didn't need anything else.
Span and Acrie scored 16 of the Mountain Lions' 19 first-quarter points as Altoona took a 19-9 advantage after 8 minutes.
"We knew that the big advantage they had on us was inside, and we knew we were going to have to battle," Central Mountain coach Scott Baker said. "Early on, I didn't think we battled the way we needed to battle."
Tyler Everhart got things going for the Wildcats to start the second quarter when he connected on a jumper. The official scorekeeper counted it as a 3-pointer, but it became a point of contention after halftime.
"The official scorer had a 3 for Everhart, but on the scoreboard it had him for two points," Hasson said. "My scorekeeper and their scorekeeper had it as a 2-point shot. The referees conversed and went back to memory and decided it was a 3-pointer."
At the half it didn't seem to matter if Altoona was leading by 10 or 11 points, because Span and Acrie were having their way.
Things changed in the third quarter.
The Wildcats (8-15) began the second half on an 11-2 run that brought them within one point with 1:57 to play in the quarter.
Altoona found an answer less than 20 seconds later when Jermaine Samuel made a layup while being fouled. Samuel missed the free throw, but Span soared over two Central Mountain defenders and made a putback to extend the lead back to five. Samuel added another free throw with 33.6 seconds left in the quarter, and Altoona carried a 38-32 lead into the fourth quarter.
"We didn't finish the quarter and let them get a couple easy buckets," Baker said. "We played a really good 6 minutes in the third quarter, we just forgot to finish it. That turned out to be the difference."
Central Mountain pulled within four early in the quarter, but back-to-back baskets from seniors Berardinelli and Acrie extended the lead back to nine and put the game away.
Acrie finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
"We really struggled offensively in that third quarter," Hasson said. "I thought our defense was solid, and we got good shots, but we couldn't convert. I thought if we just kept at it in the fourth we'd be OK, and we were."
The Mountain Lions (12-9) finished with a 43-29 rebounding advantage and four of the five starters had at least six rebounds.
"Coach told us all week at practice that if we got the ball inside, they wouldn't be able to handle us," Span said. "Coming into this, I knew I was going to have the ball in my hands a lot and that I'd have to finish. We played with that confidence and were able to get off to a great start."
The Mountain Lions completed a three-game sweep of Central Mountain this season. They will have to do the same to State College if they want to win their first district title since 2007.
Altoona won the previous meetings against the Little Lions, 62-46 and 60-49.
"We have beaten this team twice already, so we know we can do it," Span said. "We just have to know in our mind that we can do it and go out and get it done."
CENTRAL MOUNTAIN (42): Everhart 5 0-0 11, Turchetta 3 0-0 6, Garbrick 4 1-2 11, Meeker 1 0-0 2, Moore 1 0-0 2, Klein 0 0-0 0, Jolly 2 4-6 9, Stevenson 0 1-2 1, Peddigree 0 0-0 0. Totals - 16 6-10 42.
ALTOONA (52): Berardinelli 1 2-3 4, Kirwin 2 0-0 5, Samuel 2 3-5 7, Acrie 7 2-3 16, Span 7 3-5 17, Simmons 1 1-2 3, Port 0 0-0 0. Totals - 20 11-18 52.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Central Mountain 9 12 11 10 - 42
Altoona 19 12 9 14 - 52
3-pointers: Central Mountain 4 (Garbrick 2, Everhart, Jolly). Altoona 1 (Kirwin)
Records: Central Mountain (8-15); Altoona (12-9).
Officials: John Thompson, Jeffrey Heider, Steven Searer