Each step in the PIAA state basketball championships gets harder to take. Huntingdon went up against an exceptional team from Hickory High School in the second round of the tournament at DuBois High School Tuesday. The Bearcats never held a lead in this one as a lot of speed, size, and good shooting took the Hornets to an 80-65 victory, handing the ‘Cats their first loss and also ending their season.
The Bearcats (25-1) have to come to terms with not continuing on and trying to reach the championship game, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Huntingdon did everything it could to stay close but the Hornets kept them at bay.
“Someone has to lose at some point in time,” Huntingdon head coach Nick Payne said. “They only have one loss so a quality team has to go home. Tonight it was us. We just didn’t have it tonight.”
Hickory (26-1) comes at you with speedy point guard Donald Whitehead, who scored 27 points and made 10 of 13 free throws. They have the 6-7 Isaiah Jarzab and forward Peyton Mele who hit three treys and also finished with 27 points.
“We knew Whitehead and Mele were their leading scorers and we couldn’t stop them,” Payne remarked. “One of our keys was don’t put them at the foul line and they were 20 of 26.”
The Hornets seemed to always take advantage of a turnover, a rebound opportunity, or a fast break chance at a layup. They have now won 18 games in a row. Huntingdon missed too many shots early, going nine of 29 from inside in the first half, and were only 13 for 20 at the line.
Jackson Ritchey did his best to will his team to a win, scoring 25 points and making nine of 11 free throws. Nick Rigby scored 17 points and Nick Gearhart added 10.
Whitehead was pretty much able to get to the basket whenever he wanted. He scored eight points in the opening quarter.
Down 7-2, Rigby brought Huntingdon back with a pair of buckets. After a loose ball scramble, Ritchey slammed the ball through the basket for an 11-10 score. Gearhart sank a trey late in the first as the ‘Cats trailed 17-13 after one.
Huntingdon managed to keep the Hornets from running away in the second quarter. Hickory built a 10-point lead, but Gearhart made a three to set the score at 23-16.
A 6-0 burst, finished with a dunk by Mele, put the Hornets ahead 31-18. Huntingdon hung tight with a 7-2 run the last 4:40 of the half. Andrew Miller scored his five points during that span. A big blocked shot by Ritchey ended the half with the score 33-25.
The Bearcats again fought to stay close in the third quarter, but were down 58-45 after three. During the stanza, Huntingdon made it a six-point game.
Ritchey scored 13 points in the third, but Whitehead had 11. The Bearcats battled to stay within six as Whitehead nailed three treys. Huntingdon stayed close with a traditional three-point play by Ritchey. A three by Hickory ended the third at 58-45.
“Those threes just killed us,” noted Payne.
Huntingdon got the deficit down to 10 with an assist by Will Sulesky to Ritchey, and then eight points with Rigby scoring two. Hickory scored the next seven points to take a 69-55 lead.
It was mostly free throws the rest of the way as the Hornets took an 80-65 win.
Hickory averages 70 points per game and allows 48. This was the most points the Bearcats gave up in one game this season.
Payne summed up, “There’s a lot of heartache in that locker room right now. This is a wonderful team. I hurt for my seniors but they’ll remember the good times.”
District Seven champion New Castle defeated Grove City Tuesday and will meet the Hornets Friday at a site and time to be determined.