LORETTO - Once the playoffs began, the State College Area boys basketball team has been singing a different tune, going 2-0 in the postseason after finishing the regular season 2-20.
The Altoona Mountain Lions, though, were intent on making sure the song remained the same as it had in two double-digit wins earlier this season over State.
In the end, Altoona had the Little Lions singing the blues, and that was sweet music to Mountain Lion fans.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Manny Span celebrates along with Altoona’s student section after the Mountain Lions won the district title.
With Manny Span playing a lead role and Jermaine Samuel putting on a command performance of his own at St. Francis University's DeGol Arena, Altoona carried off the District 6 Class AAAA boys basketball championship trophy for the first time since 2008 by virtue of a 44-31 victory.
Now 13-9, the Mountain Lions will next play the fourth seed from the WPIAL - either Kiski Area or North Allegheny - in the first round of the PIAA tournament on March 8 somewhere within District 6.
"After seven years, it feels great. There are so many emotions, you can't explain it," said Span, who collected 15 points and 13 rebounds. "We knew State College was good enough to be here, but we knew we beat them twice and we could do it again. The emotion level was high, but I told the guys you had to control it."
The Mountain Lions controlled their emotions as well as the game, jumping out to a 4-0 lead by going to Span and fellow 6-foot-5 forward Tony Acrie for the first two buckets of the game. By the end of the first quarter, Altoona led 10-3, and it pushed that advantage to 21-9 before State rallied in the final 2 minutes of the first half.
Altoona, though, never led by fewer than five the rest of the way. When Danny Kirwin drained a 3-pointer to finish off the third quarter, the Lions' lead was back to double digits, and, with the way Altoona was playing defense and controlling the boards behind Span, Acrie and the 6-6 Samuel, it felt for all intents and purposes the outcome had been decided.
Altoona held State College to just 12 field goals in 45 attempts.
"I thought we played great on defense," Span said. "We practiced hard. I felt it just carried over to the game."
The focal point of the defense effort was containing Little Lion senior guard Michael Beattie. Altoona coach Paul Hasson alternated between using Samuel's length and David Simmons' quickness to do that, and it paid off, as Beattie scored five points, more than 10 below his average, on 2-of-11 shooting.
"That was my goal for tonight," Samuel said. "My teammates said to just do what I do."
Samuel also had a couple of blocks. However, Samuel also scored 12 points, second only to Span and five points better than his average.
After the game, he and Span shared a big hug.
"I've been talking in his ear all year. 'You're going to have a big game. You're going to have a big game,'" Span said. "Finally, this was the big game he had."
So did Span, whose parents named him appropriately, because he was like a man among boys all night. Span was a beast on the low block, hitting 7-of-13 shots.
"I tried to do everything I could. Rebound. Pass the ball. Score. I know these guys look up to me, and I look up to them," Span, who was averaging 16.0 points and 12.0 rebounds entering the district finals and had been improving his numbers in recent games. "Every time down, I knew I was going to be involved in every single play. I knew I had to assert myself. I couldn't take any plays off. When they got me the ball, I had to finish."
State College lacked a player inside with the sheer size to match up with Span. The Little Lions were outrebound 40-20.
"Altoona was better prepared to play the game than we were," State College coach Drew Frank said. "I thought we had a solid game plan going in on how we were going to defend [Span]."
State College, which was paced by Tyler Hall's 10 points, beat two higher seeds - No. 4 Hollidaysburg and No. 1 Mifflin County - to earn a shot at a fourth straight 6-AAAA championship. However, the Little Lions ran into a team that was just as hot: Altoona has now won six of seven after opening the season 1-6.
"We just kept striving," Samuel said. "We kept our determination and never stopped."
"Everyone started believing in each other," Span added. "Everyone had everyone else's backs."
Altoona had won by 16 and 11 over the Little Lions in the regular season, but Mountain Lions coach Paul Hasson wasn't discounting State as a threat.
"We had confidence, but Drew Frank does a great job, and you can never count his team's out," Hasson said. "I said a month ago they'll be around, and here they were."
It was the Mountain Lions' 37th District 6 championship.
"This was one of the best groups of kids I've ever been around," Hasson said. "They worked so hard. They actually won this last summer. They always were there to work. I always tell them at some point winter's going to ask what you did in the summer, and they did a heck of a lot to get better."
"Winning this," Samuel said, "is just amazing."
ALTOONA (44): Berardinelli 1 0-1 2, Kirwin 1 0-0 3, Samuel 3 6-8 12, Acrie 1 0-0 2, Span 7 1-2 15, Simmons 3 0-0 7, Port 0 0-0 0, Eiman 0 0-0 0, McConnell 0 1-2 1, Miller 1 0-0 2, Corl 0 0-0 0. Totals - 17 8-13 44.
STATE COLLEGE (31): T. Hall 4 0-0 10, Beattie 2 1-2 5, Cooper 0 2-2 2, Williams 2 1-2 5, Irwin 2 0-0 4, McCann 0 0-0 0, Koudela 0 0-0 0, Caswell 1 0-0 2, M. Hall 0 0-0 0, Snyder 0 1-2 1, Spencer 1 0-0 2, Kubicki 0 0-0 0. Totals - 12 5-8 31.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Altoona10 11 11 12-44
State College 3 13
3-point goals: Altoona 2 (Simmons, Kirwin); State College 2 (T. Hall 2).
Records: Altoona (13-9); State College (4-21).
Officials: Sean Albright, Chris Garritano, Cliff Kitner.