BELLFONTE – The best boys basketball season in more than two decades at Peters Township High School ended March 17. The conclusion came after four extra minutes of play, too many missed free throws by the Indians and too many turnovers during crunch time.
Kevin Saenz scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to rally District 3 champion Exeter to a 75-72 victory over Peters Township in a chaotic PIAA Class 5A quarterfinal game at Bald Eagle High School.
Peters Township, playing a state quarterfinal game for the first time since 1997, had its trademark intensity and sticky, man-to-man defense, but what the Indians didn’t have was its usual sharpshooting touch from the free-throw line.
The Indians made only 13 of 25 free throws in regulation and ended the night 16-for-33. The struggles from the charity stripe put a damper on what was a remarkable second-half comeback.
“Too many missed free throws and too many turnovers,” PT coach Joe Urmann said outside his team’s quiet locker room. “We turned the ball over a lot down the stretch. I have no regrets about anything. Our guys were locked in.”
That’s why Peters Township (24-5) was able to fight back from an eight-point halftime deficit that grew to 11 early in the third quarter. Exeter (26-6), the third consecutive team from District 3 that PT played in the postseason, scored the final seven points of the first half to take a 39-31 lead.
A three-pointer by talented point guard Zyion Paschall and a layup by Saenz gave the Eagles a 44-33 advantage. Paschall scored 20 points to lead Exter before fouling out.
That’s when the game turned into Miller Time. The Indians’ Nate Miller, who finished with a team-high 19 points, sparked a comeback.
After a three-pointer by Cam Mills and a bucket off an offensive rebound by Jake Ziegler kick-started the Indians, Miller took control. He drove for two consecutive baskets, fed Jack Dunbar with a nifty pass on a backdoor play for a layup, then came up with a steal that led to a Ziegler three-point basket and suddenly PT was ahead, 47-44.
The third quarter ended with PT up 52-50 and the Indians led 62-54 with less than four minutes left in regulation.
It looked even better for PT when Paschall, the Eagles’ leading scorer, fouled out with 3:33 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“At the media timeout in the fourth quarter, Kevin (Saenz) said, ‘I’ll get you to Monday,’” Exeter head coach Matt Ashcroft pointed out.
And that’s what Saenz did, with a little help from costly missed free throws and turnovers by PT.
Saenz made two free throws, and after a PT turnover he drove for a three-point play that tied the score at 65-65 with 1:47 to go in regulation.
Both teams had chances to win in regulation but neither scored again. Twice Exeter turned the ball over by passing it out of bounds to its cheerleaders, the second time with 13 seconds to play. PT, however, couldn’t get off a shot before the quarter ended.
In overtime, two free throws by Brendan McCullough, Dunbar’s one-handed floater and two free throws by Ziegler gave PT a 71-67 edge with 2:29 left.
Exeter freshman Jayden Ware then grabbed an offensive rebound and put it in for his only basket of the game. After Miller made one of two free throws, Saenz scored the game’s final six points. His three-pointer tied the score then he followed his own missed shot for a basket that put Exeter up, 74-72.
Saenz made one of two free-throw attempts with 21 seconds left, but PT missed two desperation three-point shots in the closing seconds.
Miller led four PT players in double figures with 19 points. McCullough and Dunbar each had 16 and Ziegler scored all of his 10 points after halftime.
“When I took over, our two seniors, Brendan and Jake, they were only sophomores,” Urmann said. “What they did was kick the door down by setting standards that we have as a foundation for our program. Through their hard work, they showed the younger guys what it is like to play good basketball and play in March Madness. At the beginning of the season, nobody expected us to be here.”
Reece Garvin scored 14 points for Exeter but had only two after the second quarter. Anthony Caccese, a 6-7 center and Delaware football recruit, scored 12 points and grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds before fouling out.
“With Zyion and Anthony both in foul trouble, we needed somebody to step up,” Ashcroft said. “Those are our two (main) guys. We want to play with confidence and aggression, and Kevin was the most confident player in the gym tonight.”
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