The Johnstown High boys basketball team entered Friday’s PIAA Class AAA playoff game with only one loss.
The Trojans were District 6 champions.
Their opponent, a highly-regarded West Mifflin squad, was the fifth-place representative in the WPIAL.
For that reason, Johnstown carried the underdog label into the first-round playoff game at Central Cambria High School.
The Trojans shrugged off the usual talk that District 6 teams don’t have a chance against the WPIAL, especially not when the opposition has a front line of players standing 6-9, 6-6, 6-5, 6-4 and 6-3.
Johnstown stunned West Mifflin 41-35 with a great defensive effort – the Trojans held the Titans to 12 field goals – and a strong second-half performance on the boards.
“Our coaching staff really stresses the defensive end,” Cobaugh said. “The old saying is defense wins championships, and our kids are buying into that. They know not every game is going to be 90-80.”
Johnstown (23-1) will face another WPIAL power in runner-up South Fayette (23-2), a 51-39 winner over District 10 runner-up General McLane on Friday. West Mifflin closed a 22-4 season.
“We just had to crash the boards really hard,” said Johnstown 6-2 junior guard Quentin Brandon, who scored 17 points and was 4 of 4 from the line in the closing seconds. “We were working on rebounding all week at practice. We were the underdogs coming in and we were fired up.”
The Trojans built a 12-8 first-quarter advantage on the strength of Brandon’s five points and a key 3-pointer by Philip Madison, who also had two steals in the quarter.
“It’s just a team defense,” Madison said. “Nothing special. Just a team defense.”
The Trojans limited the Titans to one field goal in the second quarter, but West Mifflin used its height advantage to draw fouls inside and converted 7 of 10 second-quarter free throws to even the game at 19-all in the closing seconds.
Johnstown got one last opportunity in the half. As Dwight Andrews’ long-range shot caromed off the rim, Alkwan Williams was underneath to grab the rebound and bank a shot in at the buzzer, giving Johnstown a 19-17 halftime advantage.
West Mifflin posted a 22-9 rebounding edge in the first half.
Johnstown came alive underneath in the third quarter, as Williams and Isaiah Haselrig each had putback baskets, and Haselrig took an alley-oop pass from Brandon on a dunk.
“Alkwan got a tip-in off a missed shot that set us in motion,” Cobaugh said. “When coach (Lance) Maha switched to zone (defense) and we got that alley-oop to Haselrig I think that might have been the nail in the coffin.”
Andrews’ steal and lay-up made it 31-21 with just over a minute left in the third and the Trojans entered the fourth up by eight.
At one stretch from the second quarter until midway through the third (12:05 total), West Mifflin had only one field goal.
“All five guys, it was a great team defense, to hold a team like that to 35 points,” Cobaugh said.
But West Mifflin leading scorer C.J. Hester single-handedly brought the Titans back. Hester (15 points) hit a 3-pointer, made a conventional three-point play and nailed another trey during a 9-2 run that cut Johnstown’s lead to 35-32.
“We just told everybody to stay calm,” Haselrig said.
Brandon stole the ball and drove the court, scoring on a lay-up to make it 37-32 with under a minute left. Johnstown regained possession after a turnover with 53.9 showing.Brandon made two free throws, and the Titans’ Ryan Maha hit a 3-pointer with 12.4 left to set a 39-35 score.
Once again, Brandon answered with two foul shots with 11.5 on the clock.
Johnstown outrebounded West Mifflin 13-6 in the second half and had a respectable 22 boards, only six fewer than the Titans.
“We just had to help on the big guys down low,” Brandon said.
“We just tried to box out,” Haselrig added. “We were working on rebounding all week. It’s a team effort.”