HOLLIDAYSBURG - Paul Hasson pulled Manny Span and his other starters with about 2 minutes to go, and, behind the bench, fans of the Altoona Area High School boys basketball team gave their Mountain Lions a lengthy standing ovation.
Even though they weren't going to be number one in the state, they had captured first place in the hearts of their community.
"It felt amazing," Span said. "Even though we're sad that we're not going to play again as a high school team, it's great that we had the whole town behind us. I felt like they were all with me on the bench. For people to be so grateful even though we lost is just so amazing to me."
The Mountain Lions just weren't able to overcome North Allegheny's advantages in quickness and perimeter depth on Saturday at the Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School gym, got caught up in having to try to play the Tigers' game and succumbed, 82-57, in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAAA tournament.
Altoona finished the year 13-10.
"They shoot well. They've got a lot of quickness. They handle the ball well. They put the pressure on you full-court. It's relentless," Hasson said of North Allegheny, which was 32-for-54 from the field and forced Altoona into 25 turnovers while committing just seven itself in improving to 22-4. "They've beaten 21 other teams the same way. We just fell victim to their system, which is a pretty good system."
The Lions matched the Tigers shot for shot through the first 5:30 of the contest before a 16-6 NA spurt turned a 12-12 tie into a 10-point deficit for Altoona less than a minute into the second quarter. Another 9-0 run in the middle of the period had the Lions looking at a 16-point hill to climb, and it just got steeper and steeper from there.
"It was hard," said Lion senior forward Tony Acrie, who scored a team-high 19 points and was a force on the boards along with Span and Jermaine Samuel all game long. "We didn't do anything wrong. We played really hard. We played really, really hard. There's nothing to be sad about."
It was just a case of Altoona coming up against a team that presented a very difficult matchup. While the Lions had three starters as taller or taller than the tallest player in North Allegheny's rotation, the Tigers possessed about seven perimeter players with decent size and very similar games. NA coach Dave DeGregorio substituted them liberally.
"That's the way we always play. Some years we've gone nine deep," DeGregorio, whose team will next face unbeaten New Castle on Wednesday, said. "We're always trying to get to the basket or shoot a 3. Defensively, we're going to put pressure on you. We're going to run to you and see what plays you can make."
Cole Constantino fronted four Tigers to score in double figures with 18 points, while Joe Mancini made four 3-pointers to wind up with 15. When 6-foot-3 forward Eli Zeise got into foul trouble, Will Sandherr came off the bench to just add another perimeter weapon and scored 11.
Constantino scored 11 in the first quarter and had 15 at halftime.
"We just needed someone to pick it up in the beginning," Constantino said. "We're mostly guards, so we're got to push it up the floor and get them running up and down."
The effects were most evident in the second quarter, when all 11 of Altoona's points came from the foul line and the Mountain Lions made 11 turnovers. North Allegheny increased the lead to 21 late in the first half. The Tigers' biggest lead was 32 midway through the fourth quarter, although Altoona managed to meet some second-half goals by cutting NA's 3-pointers from six to zero and turning the ball over seven fewer times in the last two quarters.
Span and Samuel joined Acrie in double-digit points with 12 and 10, respectively. Despite the lopsided season-ending setback and a record not much over .500, the Mountain Lions seemed to have pleased their fans and their coach.
"This was a great group of kids. One of the best," Hasson said. "It [the season] was a test of perseverance. When they were 1-6 in December, they could have packed it away, but that's not the character of these kids."
Instead, they worked, improved and brought the program its first District 6 Class AAAA championship in seven years.
"We set goals at the beginning of the year. One of our goals was to win the District 6 championship. We did it. One of the goals was to have a great team. We did it. One of the goals was for everyone to get better. We did it," Acrie said. "So we accomplished all the goals. I felt there was nothing bad about the season."
It was obviously a tight-knit group. Afterward the final horn, the Lions spent about a half-hour in their locker room as players made emotional speeches to their teammates. Then, Span emerged, his eyes almost shut as he fought to hold back the tears.
"Basically, we were saying that if you want to win a district championship, you have to put in the work," Span said. "We all became family working together."
NORTH ALLEGHENY (82): Mancini 5 1-2 15, Constantino 7 3-5 18, Carter 2 1-2 5, Haus 4 1-1 9, Zeise 5 0-0 10, Sandherr 3 4-7 11, Gwaltney 2 0-0 4, Sestili 2 1-2 5, Phillips 0 1-2 1, Constantakis 1 0-0 2, Lake 0 0-0 0, Suda 1 0-0 2, Beuth 0 0-0 0. Totals - 32 12-21 82.
ALTOONA (57): Berardinelli 1 0-0 3, Kirwin 1 0-0 3, Samuel 1 8-9 10, Acrie 8 2-2 19, Span 3 6-10 12, Simmons 0 6-8 6, Eiman 0 0-0 0, Port 2 0-0 4, Miller 0 0-0 0, Corl 0 0-0 0, Bell 0 0-0 0, Gampe 0 0-0 0. Totals - 16 22-29 57.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
North Allegheny26 22 21 13-82
Altoona18 11 13 15-57
3-point goals: North Allegheny 6 (Mancini 4, Constantino, Sandherr); Altoona 3 (Acrie, Kirwin, Berardinelli).
Records: North Allegheny (22-4); Altoona (13-10).
Officials: Jim Racchini, Greg Sipos, Doug Steve.