CALIFORNIA – The important Section 5-AA boys basketball game Tuesday night between Charleroi and California had a playoff feel to it from the opening tip.
In these type of games, your best players usually rise to the occasion and that’s exactly what California’s Tanner Huffman did, rallying the Trojans from an 11-point second-half deficit to a 55-52 win and handing the Cougars their first section loss.
California (7-0, 12-1), playing in a packed gymnasium, didn’t take its first lead of the game until the 1:03 mark of the fourth quarter when Brian Fisher grabbed an offensive rebound off a Huffman miss and converted a layup to put the Trojans up 53-52.
It was a bad sequence for Charleroi (6-1, 8-4) which had the opportunity to extend its lead with a 3-on-1 fast break, but Eric Johnson turned the ball, over giving the Trojans a crack at the lead.
The Cougars also had the opportunity to regain the lead in the final seconds, but Jim Diaz missed a pair of shots around the rim. That led to Demetri Clements making a pair of clutch free throws in the final seconds to give Cal the win.
Overall, the game was a turnoverfest as both teams were sloppy with the basketball. Charleroi turned the ball over 30 times, which proved to be a killer for the Cougars. But the atmosphere in the gym was something special as both schools fans turned out in big numbers.
“I’ve played over a thousand basketball games and have never played in front of a crowd like that,” said Huffman. “There was so much energy coming from the crowd and it made for an exciting game.”
The Cougars played an inspired game and got off to a great start, mainly because of Diaz. The senior scored 12 of his 20 points in the first half and was outstanding at the defensive end all night.
Charleroi led 28-22 lead at the half, helped by a technical foul on a California assistant coach that resulted in a four-point swing. The Cougars carried that momentum into the second half with a quick 7-2 run that gave them their largest lead of the game at 35-24.
But that’s when Huffman took over. He scored nine of the Trojans’ next 12 points to cut the Charleroi lead to 37-36. Huffman finished with a game-high 23 points, but 15 of them came in the second half, including knocking down three big shots fromthree-point range.
“No way was I going to allow us to lose that game,” said Huffman. “We came out kind of slow, and I think a lot of that had to do with the big crowd. But once they came out quick in the second half, I knew as a leader and the captain of the team that I had to do something to bring us back. That was as big of a win as I can remember us having. We grew up as a team in a big way tonight.”
Even with Huffman’s second-half heroics, Charleroi refused to buckle and maintained the lead despite the Trojans pulling to within one point at several points during the fourth quarter.
The tide started to turn though when Clements made a three, which was followed by a Huffman layup to pull the Trojans within 44-43.
“You kind of felt it right there,” said California head coach Phil Pergola. “They had much more energy than us for three quarters, but I think Demetri’s three really swung the momentum our way.”
harleroi’s Matt Indorante was doing his best to make sure the Cougars stayed on top, making a pair of clutch three-point shots late in the game that seemed like they might be the game’s biggest shots.
Indorante’s fourth three-pointer of the game put Charleroi up 50-46 with four minutes remaining, but the Cougars wouldn’t score for the rest of the game.
“We didn’t defend very well for three quarters,” said Pergola. “But I was happy with the way we defended in the fourth quarter. We forced a lot of turnovers and got some easy baskets throughout the game, but I felt that we didn’t allow them many easy shot opportunities late in the game.”
In addition to Diaz’s 20 points from Diaz, Indorante had 18 for Charleroi.
“I am very proud of the effort we gave,” said Charleroi head coach Bill Wiltz. “Every single guy left everything they had on the court and I can’t ask anything else as a coach. We did some dumb things with the ball late in the game, but I don’t put that on the players. They played extremely hard.”
Huffman and Clements (12) scored in double-digits for the Trojans.
“This was a hard-earned victory,” said Pergola. “We beat Brownsville and now Charleroi in the section. We now have to avoid getting complacent and losing to a team that we shouldn’t lose to. I hope to see this type of effort every game.”