ALTOONA — As magnificent and jaw-dropping as Carlisle’s ferocious comeback attempt proved to be Tuesday night, Pine-Richland still did enough.
But, goodness, did the Rams have to hold on for dear life.
Surviving one of the wildest rallies those packed into Altoona Area High School will surely remember, Pine-Richland posted a 65-60 triumph over the Thundering Herd in a PIAA Class 6A semifinal.
The Rams (28-1), after an awful second quarter, turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 16-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
The advantage was 61-45 with 2:18 left before Carlisle (21-9) stomped onto the gas pedal and found fifth, sixth and seventh gears, slicing the deficit all the way to three points with 17 seconds left before Pine-Richland mercifully collapsed across the finish line.
Next up for the Rams is Reading in Saturday’s 8 p.m. championship at Hershey’s Giant Center. The Red Knights popped Archbishop Ryan 57-51 in Tuesday’s other semifinal at Temple University.
“We had heart,” concluded Deshawn Millington, who scored a game-high 22 points in his final game donning the Thundering Herd uniform.
“That last sequence was definitely what Carlisle basketball is all about,” fellow senior Nate Barnes said. “Lion-hearted, coming back, always fighting.”
Rams head coach Jeff Ackerman, whose team lost primary ball handler Andrew Petcash (16 points) to his fifth foul seconds after taking that 61-45 lead, knew his worthy team dodged a serious bullet.
“Once we lost Andrew, that kind of hurt us there,” said Ackerman, whose District 7 championship team won its ninth straight game. “They’re very athletic, and they were just, like, desperate. And when you’re desperate, you play really hard.
“We were just kind of trying to hang on, and we really weren’t aggressive there, and they were the more aggressive team. That’s why they were able to get some steals, and we panicked, and it got loud. And without our best player on the court, it made it harder, too.”
Over the first 14 minutes of the second half, though, is when Pine-Richland showed exactly why it’s won 28 games and is headed to its first PIAA championship game.
After a 2-for-20 second quarter in which the Rams scored just six points and fell behind 28-22 by intermission, a brand new team showed up for the third quarter.
Petcash scored 11 of his 16 points, including three 3-pointers, and Phil Jurkovec, a Notre Dame quarterback commit, netted 10 of his team-high 19 points in the same stretch.
The Rams vaulted in front for good on two straight Petcash 3-pointers that answered a driving layup by Millington, who scored 15 of his 22 in the first half.
“I just kind of cut to the chase and told them like it is,” Ackerman said of his halftime speech. “Phil and Andrew are our two best players, and they weren’t playing very well. And we’re not going to beat too many teams when they’re not playing very well. We need them to be at their best. And Andrew came out in the second half, and once Andrew goes, we go.”
Carlisle, helped by a run-stopping 3-pointer from Ethan Houston (17 points), stayed within 45-39 into the fourth, but Pine-Richland soon embarked on a 16-3 run to snag its largest lead of the game.
The Rams simply eased through Carlisle’s press, which had been so effective Saturday in rallying the Herd from 11 points down to eventually beat Emmaus in the quarterfinals.
“It felt very similar to the other night,” Herd coach Andre Anderson said. “But we can’t start that late. We can’t start that comeback that late.”
It started when Gavyn Barnes (14 points) drew Petcash’s fifth foul with 2:13 left, and the 15-2 run ended when Barnes drilled a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left.
Ben Milligan, Gavyn Barnes, Millington, Houston and Ki Barnes were playing on another level to bring the boys to the brink of ridiculousness. The Rams turned it over nine times in the fourth and 19 times overall (to Carlisle’s six).
But it was just too great a hill to climb.
“It’s a basketball town, I’ll say that loud and clear,” Anderson said. “For us to go out this way when we’re that close, it hurts, it really hurts.”
And Milligan summarized the soul of this outfit: “Just go out fighting with everything you possibly can. That just goes to show the type of team we’re capable of (being).”
Pine-Richland put four starters in double figures, with Jurkovec (19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) and Andrew Kristofic (11 points, 13 boards, five assists) posting double-doubles. Evan Luellen added 15 points and seven assists.
Carlisle was doomed by one of its worst rebounding games of the season, losing the battle by a 45-27 count. Ki Barnes and Houston shared 11 boards in defeat. Millington added six steals.