JOHNSTOWN - Northern Bedford's start was great.
Conemaugh Township's response to it was even better.
Eager for payback after last season's 46-point loss to Township in the finals, the Black Panthers came out riding a wave of emotion and scored the first nine points in their District 5 Class AA boys basketball championship game rematch with the Indians.
The Indians, though, weathered the storm and showed the poise down the stretch to emerge from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown Sports Center with a 57-52 victory on Wednesday night.
"We got off to a fast start. Then we just kind of cooled off," said Panther senior forward Kyler Diehl, whose 15 points were three behind teammate Blake Over for game high.
Zane Snyder also finished in double digits for Northern with 10 points. Township was led by Ben Wilson with 14, Jake Formica with 13 and Austin Speigle with 12. The top-seeded Panthers finished the year 19-6.
"They mopped us up last year, and that's all the inspiration we needed," first-year Northern Bedford coach Jason Free said. "They [our players] wanted it bad. Unfortunately, in the fourth quarter, I think we wanted it too bad. We took some ill-advised shots when I would have liked to get a better look.
"I think we just ran out of gas."
Northern led 47-43 when Diehl made 1-of-2 free throws with 4:15 left to play. Township, though, ran off the next seven points over a 90-second span and never trailed after that.
The Panthers did have a couple of chances in the closing seconds. Snyder's 3-pointer that would have tied the game at 55 with 12 seconds left hit off the back of the iron, and NB's Jacob Dasher was called for going over the back chasing the rebound. The Indians couldn't capitalize, though, and Over rose up trying for his fifth trey of the game with a hand in his face with 2.9 seconds to go, but it hit nothing and went out of bounds.
Formica converted both free throws this time, and Township had its third consecutive district title.
"We knew they were going to come out strong after last year, so we just had to take the first few punches and go from there and execute offensively," Formica said.
The Indians, who improved to 21-5 and will advance to the PIAA tournament, had plenty of adversity with which to deal in addition to Northern's overwhelming start. Top reserve Luke Maurer hurt his ankle late in the first half and didn't return, and top scorer Jeff Callihan fouled out with 3:07 left and his team nursing a one-point lead.
"I guess it was just the sheer will of those kids. I can't say enough about how hard they work," Township coach Chuck Lesko said. "We just wanted to stay around, stay around, stay around. Wilson hit some big shots when we needed them, and the seniors - Austin and Jake and Jeff - played a key role in keeping the group together."
Although Northern Bedford had a big advantage in size with Diehl and Over checking in at 6-foot-5, Snyder 6-3 and Dasher 6-2, Township outrebounded the Panthers, 44-30, and pulled 22 off the offensive glass.
"My goals were to outrebound them and have less than 13 turnovers. I think we had less than 13 turnovers [Northern committed 11], but we didn't outrebound them," Free said. "They score a lot from the inside. We wanted to limit second and third shots. They got them. That's why they're getting the gold."
Northern came out a house afire. Diehl scored in the low post before Over made consecutive 3-pointers. Then Dasher added a free throw to make it 9-0 less than 3 minutes in before Formica finally got Township on the board. Diehl and Over also had two blocks apiece in the early going; they finished the game with four each.
"Emotions were high. We were hitting shots I really hadn't seen us hit all year consistently," Diehl said.
The Panthers were so hot from the perimeter that even Diehl and reserve Jake Cherry made 3-pointers in the second half. Free, though, thought it was too much of a good thing and eventually did more harm than good.
"That could have been the downfall. We relied on the outside shot a little more, and we're an inside shooting team," Free said.
Free said his goal as a first-year head coach was just to get the Panthers back with a chance to win the district final. That was achieved, and Northern Bedford also won the Southern Division of the Inter-County Conference.
"It was a great season. I'm happy with what we accomplished," Diehl said. "But it [stinks] that we didn't get gold."
CONEMAUGH TOWNSHIP (57): Speigle 2 6-6 12, Wilson 5 0-0 14, Formica 4 5-7 13, Steeves 2 0-0 4, Callihan 4 1-1 9, Maurer 2 1-1 5, Valentine 0 0-0 0, Stahl 0 0-2 0. Totals - 19 13-17 57.
NORTHERN BEDFORD (52): Ebersole 0 0-0 0, Snyder 5 0-0 10, Over 7 0-1 18, Dasher 1 2-4 4, Diehl 5 4-6 15, Cherry 2 0-0 5. Totals - 20 6-11 52.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Conemaugh Township 13 11 17 16-57
Northern Bedford 15 11 15 11-52
3-point goals: Conemaugh Township 6 (Wilson 4, Speigle 2); Northern Bedford 6 (Over 4, Diehl, Cherry).
Records: Conemaugh Township (21-5); Northern Bedford (19-6).
Officials: Ron Koppenhaver, Mike Baum, Justin Fischer.