It’s do-or-die time now in PIAA playoffs

When Paul Hasson, now the head varsity boys basketball coach at Altoona Area High School, was a star player for the Bishop Guilfoyle Marauders back in the 1970s, a little bit of wiggle room existed in the PIAA state playoffs.

As a junior in March of 1974, Hasson helped the Marauders reach the Final Four in what was then the Class B classification of the PIAA state bracket – and BG got the opportunity to play a consolation game at the Harrisburg Farm Show Arena after losing in the semifinals.

“At that time, they took four teams to the PIAA finals, and if your team made the Final Four, your team went down there,” Hasson said. “Our team lost to Midland, 31-30, in what would have been the western final, and we played for third place the next day and beat Cocalico, 56-46, in the third-place game.”

Fast forward 40 years, and Hasson’s Altoona team – one of 11 area boys and girls squads involved in the PIAA playoffs that begin tonight – won’t have the luxury of playing another game, albeit a consolation game, after a loss.

At this stage of the season, a loss marks the end of the basketball season for every team, which can be a sobering thought for a senior player who is leaving the high school court for the final time.

“It puts a lot of pressure on us in these games,” said Morgan Lynn, a senior forward and two-year starter for the District 5 champion Tussey Mountain High School girls basketball team, whose 23-1 squad meets District 7 fifth-place finisher Sacred Heart (16-8) of the Pittsburgh area Saturday at 5 p.m. in a Class AA game at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown’s Sports Center. “When I think about it, it makes me really nervous, because if we lose, we’re done. We just have to play our game, and try not to think about it. We’re definitely capable of winning this game, if we don’t let our nerves get to us.”

For star Altoona senior post Manny Span and the Mountain Lions, the playoff pressure is not a novelty. Span and his team faced elimination in their two games in the District 6-AAAA boys playoffs, defeating both Central Mountain and State College in elimination scenarios.

District 6 champion Altoona (13-9) faces District 7 fourth-place finisher North Allegheny (21-4) tonight in a 5:30 p.m. tipoff at the Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School.

“Right now, everybody wants to win, and we know that,” said Span, whose 15 points and 12 rebounds per game leads the Mountain Lions in both categories. “I feel real excited. We’re not a high seed going into the playoffs, so we have nothing to lose. In the past two games, we were in one-and-done [situations] against Central Mountain and State College. I think we have the upper hand right now, and I’m excited to see how we react.”

Span’s Altoona teammate, senior post Tony Acrie, is excited as well.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever played in a state playoff game, and it’s really exciting,” he said. “There’s less presssure because we don’t have a real high seed and we’re actually the underdogs. We’ve been getting hunted all year, and now we’re doing the hunting.”

BG senior guard C.J. Fulare has been part of a Marauders program that is making its third appearance in the Class A boys state playoffs. The District 6 runner-up Marauders (19-6) play District 5 runner-up Forbes Road (16-8) tonight at 8 p.m. at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse.

“Since my sophomore year, we’ve made it to the state playoffs, but we’ve never been able to get a win,” Fulare said. “This is a big opportunity for us this year. I’m a senior, so this is it for me, and playing in the state playoffs is an exciting feeling because BG has a great fan base and you’re playing before a packed house every night.

“I’m not really nervous,” Fulare added. “I’m excited. This is an exciting time of the year, and it’s a time that we’re looking forward to.”

Portage senior guard Emily Chobany is a four-year starter who will be making her second appearance in the state playoffs. Like Fulare, Chobany – a 1,000-plus point scorer – is more excited than apprehensive. Portage, the District 6-A runner-up, carries a 23-2 record into its first-round game Saturday at 4 p.m. against District 5 third-place finisher Berlin Brothersvalley (21-4) at Central Cambria High School.

“There’s definitely a lot of excitement,” Chobany said. “In every game we play, we’ll have our whole town behind us, and that will create an awesome atmosphere to play in. We’re trying not to disappoint people.”

The Altoona boys are making their first state tournament appearance since 2007 – although the Mountain Lions participated in a play-in game in 2011 and lost – and Span is happy to be involved.

“Coach [Hasson] has been harping all year that good teams play in February and the great teams play in March,” Span said. “We finally got to be a great team this year. And that feels really good.”