Spark off bench helps Panthers move ahead in conference

PATTON – With one game separating the top four boys basketball teams in Section 1 of the Laurel Highlands Conference entering the week, everyone is looking for that one little spark that might give them the edge.

Penn Cambria might have found its on Wednesday night.

With big guns A.J. Leahey and Isaac Vescovi playing to a standoff and the Panthers and host Cambria Heights almost identical in every other way, Penn Cambria’s Chad Tsikalas came off the bench to net all nine of his points in a crucial five-minute stretch of the first half of a 70-58 road victory.

“He’s just getting better and better every game,” Panthers coach Jim Ronan said of his 6-foot-2 junior reserve after Penn Cambria improved to 10-2 overall and 3-1 in the section heading into Friday’s showdown with section front-runner Bishop Carroll. “He hasn’t had an opportunity to see a lot of time with all these seniors, but each game he’s getting more and more time, and he brings so much to the table. He’s starting to shoot it. He’s long, he gets rebounds, he plays good defense.

“I think he could be a key piece to our success going down the road.”

Penn Cambria was in a 7-all tie and getting into some foul trouble late in the first quarter just before Ronan brought in Tsikalas, who was averaging 2.5 points. In the last 53 seconds of the period, Tsikalas scored six points to give the Panthers a 17-9 lead.

When Mack Behe found Tsikalas at the top of the key for a 3-pointer at the 3:33 mark of the second quarter, the margin had ballooned to 14. Heights was never closer than six the rest of the game.

“I just try to provide a spark, get some offensive rebounds, make some shots,” Tsikalas said.

Tsikalas finished with seven more than the Highlanders bench provided in the entire game. He also led the Panthers’ junior varsity team in scoring in the preliminary game with 11.

“I think my confidence is what was lacking. My coaches started playing me in JV, and I think that has given me a confidence boost and made a difference. I didn’t play JV the first couple of games,” Tsikalas said. “They said they wanted me in more of a rhythm heading into the varsity game and in more of a scoring role.”

Tied with Penn Cambria and Bishop Guilfoyle for second place in the section coming into the night, Heights slipped to two games back of Carroll and to 8-5 overall, even though Vescovi fired in 22 points in the second half to share game scoring honors with Leahey – both finished with 27.

“We have a tendency to start out slow. After that, we settled down. We got some better looks and better opportunities,” Highlander coach Eric Nagel said. “You can’t afford to have a lull like that in this league.”

Both teams had three double-digit scorers. Devin Lawhead and Behe complemented Leahey with 13 and 12 points, respectively. Heights’ Brad Hoppel tossed in 14 points, while teammate Nathan Bearer chipped in with 12.

It was a dangerous game for the Panthers, who can cause a two- or three-way tie by beating Carroll. The Huskies improved to 4-0 in the section with a 62-30 win over Forest Hills on Wednesday. Penn Cambria and Bishop Guilfoyle are tied for second at 3-1.

“We knew if we didn’t win this game, that game probably wouldn’t mean quite as much,” Ronan said. “It was a tough game. We know who we are. We are a team of really good athletes and big kids. Sometimes, our games aren’t the prettiest.”

Heights still has six section games left in which to make amends for Wednesday’s loss.

“It’s a long season,” Nagel said. “In this section – in this league – anyone can win on any given night. I think the opportunity is still out there to make some noise.”

Game notes: Leahey also had 10 rebounds and two blocked shots before fouling out late in the game. Heights is at BG on Friday night. Mark Mardula stole the ball near halfcourt and went in for a layup with four seconds left to give Penn Cambria a 37-35 comeback win in the junior varsity contest.

PENN CAMBRIA (70): J. Mardula 1 0-1 2, Behe 4 2-2 12, Leahey 8 8-10 27, Keagy 1 2-2 4, Lawhead 5 3-5 13, Schwaderer 0 1-2 1, Tsikalas 3 2-2 9, Przybys 1 0-0 2, Hite 0 0-0 0, Chirdon 0 0-0 0, Bastian 0 0-0 0. Totals – 23 18-24 70.

CAMBRIA HEIGHTS (58): Milanesi 0 1-2 1, Brawley 0 0-0 0, Vescovi 10 7-7 27, Bearer 5 2-3 12, Hoppel 6 2-5 14, Kruise 1 0-0 2, Miller 0 0-0 0, Strasser 0 0-0 0. Totals – 22 12-17 58.


Penn Cambria17 15 16 22-70

Cambria Heights 9 14 14 21-58

3-point goals: Penn Cambria 6 (Leahey 3, Tsikalas, Behe 2); Cambria Heights 2 (Vescovi 2).

Records: Penn Cambria (10-2; 3-1 LHAC Section 1); Cambria Heights (8-5; 2-2 LHAC Section 1).

Officials: Clark Adelman, Jerry Kauffman, Jack McDougal.

JV: Penn Cambria, 37-35. High scorers-Chad Tsikalas, PC, 11; Josh Serafin, CH, 17.