MCMURRAY – With Peters Township holding a three-point lead over Canon-McMillan at the end of the third quarter Friday night, Indians junior Connor Freely looked into his teammates’ eyes.
The 6-5 forward saw a look of determination. It was one that Peters Township was lacking last season, when they lost an opportunity to reach the WPIAL basketball playoffs by falling to the Big Macs in the section finale.
With the Indians again facing Canon-McMillan with fourth place and the final playoff spot in Section 4-AAAA on the line, Freely and his teammates did all they could to avoid seeing the Big Macs celebrate a playoff-clinching victory on their court.
Freely scored 14 points – all in the second half – to lead Peters Township to a 44-41 victory over Canon McMillan, securing fourth place and a playoff spot for the Indians.
“We had that look in our eyes,” Freely said. “We weren’t going to lose to them at home, on Senior Night and with the playoffs on the line. We lost this same game last year at their place. We had to take care of business.”
The Big Macs defeated Peters Township, 55-46, last month at Canon-McMillan, but Freely was not able to play in that game. He injured an ankle three days prior in a non-section game against Wash High.
Freely made up for lost time by penetrating the Big Macs’ zone defense and drawing multiple defenders to him every time he received a pass in the low post. While Freely was held scoreless in the first half, it was 6-5 junior Tim Swoope who dominated in the opening 16 minutes, scoring eight points in the second quarter to lead the Indians into halftime with the lead. Swoope finished with 10 points.
Prior to that loss to the Big Macs, Peters Township head coach Gary Goga knew eight section wins would be necessary for the Indians to make the playoffs. At that point, the Indians had only won four section wins and looked like a long shot to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
“That game was two teams giving everything they had,” Goga said. “We were fortunate enough to beat them.”
The Big Macs gave Peters Township (8-6, 11-10) everything they had when the fourth quarter began. Senior Costa Karanikos made a three-pointer to start the final eight minutes and a pair of baskets by junior Sam Bohn drew Canon-McMillan (7-7, 11-10) to within four points. Freely answered with six points over the final five minutes to clinch the win for the Indians.
Bohn had a team-high 20 points for the Big Macs.
Peters Township led by only three points at halftime with lack of opportunities not being its issue. The Indians missed several layups and went just 3-for-9 from the free-throw line to keep the Big Macs within striking distance. In the second half, Peters Township did not repeat the mishaps. They made six of nine free throws to propel them into the playoffs.
“We lost a lot of chances in the first half, and I admit that I even missed a layup or two,” Freely said. “We knew we had to clean up our play in the second half to win, and we did. The crowd was amazing. I was uptight for a bit there with all of the noise.”
Canon-McMillan’s push for the playoffs came to an end. In a season in which one of their players – junior Luke Blanock – underwent chemotheraphy and several players suffered injuries, the Big Macs fell one game shy of sneaking into the playoffs. Just two weeks ago, Canon-McMillan was tied for first place in the section.
After losing five of their final six section games, the Big Macs walked slowly off the court as the Indians and their fans celebrated a playoff-clinching win.
“I’m the type of coach that, when my team comes up short of a goal, I always start with me,” Canon-McMillan head coach Rick Bell said. “I could have done more. That being said, I can’t begin to express how proud I am of this team. To overcome everything we have been through and have a chance at the playoffs on the final night is incredible.”
For Freely and the Indians, reflecting on a season of ups and downs will not do them any good. Peters Township is prepared to face a top seed in the playoffs, but with Goga’s nine years of experience at the helm, Freely is confident they will be ready.
“Coach Goga has had a lot of success,” Freely said. “I’m sure we’ll have a great game plan and I am eager to see who we are going to play.”