The win was dramatic, but Hughesville coach Nick Tagliaferri talked like a coach whose team lost.
The Spartans overcame a four-point deficit in the final 40 seconds last Tuesday and edged South Williamsport, 51-50 on Fred Newhart's free throw with 6-tenths of a second remaining. They also squandered a nine-point second-quarter lead, however, and made a series of mistakes against a determined team that nearly made it pay.
Tagliaferri was not happy. He has led Hughesville to four District 4 Class AA championships and six state tournament appearances since 2006 and it is that pursuit of excellence that drives the program. And really, it is not so much about winning in December as it is learning early so that the team can thrive in February and March. Tagliaferri knew as well as anyone that Hughesville's performance would not cut it during that critical time so he let his team know it.
And it appears they received that message loud and clear.
Three nights later, Hughesville responded with its most dominant performance this young season, throttling Northwest, 58-32 on the road. More impressive was the way the Spartans (3-1) owned the fourth quarter, outscoring the Rangers, 25-2 while winning their third straight game.
"I don't think we played up to our potential," senior guard Tristan Jeffreys said after the South win. "From this win we have to learn that we have to play a full 32 minutes. It's not enough to play one quarter well or two quarters well. We have to do it for the whole game."
That looked like it started happening Friday as Hughesville went back to its roots and sucked the life out of Northwest's offense with trademark swarming defense. A year ago, that was lacking as the young Spartans stumbled to an 8-14 finish, missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
Hughesville started that season 0-2 and never pulled above .500. So winning these three straight games could be the boost the Spartans needed.
"Whatever you need to do to get your confidence up, do it, but our team should have that confidence," Tagliaferri said. (Tuesday) I said there are a lot of people at the game and people that have seen you at your worst and they're still here. They're keepers, so you shouldn't be uncomfortable out there. Last year was last year. We've been through a lot of situations. Tristan, (Brandon) Fortin, Fred (Newhart), (Jeremiah) McCarty, (Tyler) Mitcheltree, (Ty) Stugart ... those guys have played a lot of basketball and at some point it has to click."
That might be happening. The Spartans open a rugged HAC-II schedule at Lewisburg Tuesday on a high. They enter well armed too because they have some strong inside players along with some quality guards and are deep. Newhart is taking over inside and has 32 rebounds during the winning streak while Jeffreys is one of the area's most well-rounded players. Fortin and Stugart can score but also are potentially shut-down defenders.
That win might not have produced the performance Tagliaferri was hoping for last Tuesday. But it might just have served as a turning point.
"It's always fun to play in games like this. I just love the competition because it's always fun," Jeffreys said. "We just have to take it and build on it."
GROWING PAINS: South (1-3) has lost three straight but those have come against more experienced teams that are a combined 10-1. The Mounties have only one player with varsity experience back from last year's HAC-III champion so it is not surprising to see it take some losses early. It would be silly, however, to count out this team.
South is loaded with talented young players and right now it seems just a matter of them getting more experience, more acclimated to the varsity game. The Mounties showed a lot of heart against Hughesville and competed hard against undefeated Lewisburg two nights later. The record might now show it but progress is being made. Under coach Matt Fisher, South traditionally has shown dramatic improvement as the seasons have progressed and this is a team with a lot of upside.
This is a team that could be dangerous if it reaches districts for a fourth straight year.
"Our goal at the beginning of the season was no matter how good we are in December and January we have to be better by the second half of the season," said Fisher, who has led South to two league titles in three years. "We grew (Tuesday) from where we were last week and we have to keep doing that every game."
LIGHTING IT UP: Central Mountain senior Cole Renninger showed why he is receiving Division I interest in Friday's 68-57 loss at Loyalsock. The versatile guard put on a dazzling show, scoring 31 points, making eight steals, grabbing six rebounds and adding three assists. He scored 28 points through three quarters, made a series of difficult shots driving to the basket and shooting from long-range and nearly willed Central Mountain to a win.
Renninger's all-around game is similar to that displayed by Central Mountain all-time leading scorer Jonathan Pribble who became one of Lycoming's all-time greats. The senior can do it all and Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger is glad his team does not have to encounter him again.
"He put on a clinic," Insinger said. "He worked for everything. He didn't get many freebies. We had somebody in his back pocket and he would just pull up on a dime and, bingo. He has good range and he's quick and explosive."
PUTBACKS: It speaks to the depth of quality area teams that St. John Neumann has not yet cracked the top 5. The Knights (3-0) are off to a great start, winning three straight double-digit games on the road. They blasted Bucktail, 82-31 last Thursday and then recorded a big 56-45 win at previously undefeated Lourdes in a game that could be a playoff preview ... Liberty won its first game in two seasons last Friday, beating Wyalusing, 50-45. Jimmy Walker scored 17 points for a Mounties team that returns all its players from last year and that could be vastly improved ... Warrior Run has only seven players but is a basket from being 2-0. The Defenders beat Montgomery, 63-46 Friday and Zack Miller is averaging 21.5 points.
Dr. Masse's Area Top Five
1. Williamsport (5-0): Herb Stelly is developing into a strong point guard and is sparking the Millionaires with his all-around play. Stelly was brilliant in Saturday's 81-44 win over Westinghouse, scoring 11 points, dealing six assists and smoothly running the offense. He had a similar performance in Wednesday's rout of Wilkes-Barre GAR. He and all the Millionaires are playing well and are 5-0 for the first time in 11 years, a streak they put to the test Tuesday at Pottsville.
"I challenged Herb to get 10 assists a game and he's going after that. He's one that likes to score but with the scorers we have I told him he has to look to get in the lane and find your teammates," Williamsport coach Allen Taylor said. "He's doing a good job of that and has been strong getting to the lane and when he does that he gets it high up there and gets his points too."
2. Loyalsock (2-0): The Lancers are as balanced as any area team and have had five and four players score in double figures in their two wins. Omar Little, Kyle Datres, Mike Pastore and Jimmy Webb are reliable guards while Roger Wilson and Ben Sosa are tough inside. Wilson has two double-doubles, Little is averaging 19.5 points, Datres has 21 assists and Sosa is a good rebounder who could blossom into a strong scorer.
"That's the strength of this team," Insinger said. "We don't have any superstars. We don't have a Tyler Bogaczyk that we have to go through every night. On any given night anyone should be able to come through for us."
3. Lewisburg (3-0): The Green Dragons are off to a great start, winning three games by 14 or more points, including at tough Shikellamy and South Williamsport venues. Lewisburg has a big game tonight against Hughesville and has held two teams to fewer than 40 points. Senior forward Erich Kline can be a tough matchup, taking his game inside and outside and scored 27 points in two wins last week.
4. Wellsboro (4-0): The Green Hornets have run roughshod over their last three opponents and look as complete as any area team thus far. Sophomore forward Kieron Smethers could be in for a breakout year. The tall, lanky and explosive forward averaged 16 points last week and grabbed 14 rebounds in a 31-point win over Sayre. Point guard Jordan Jackson is one of the area's leading scorers and also one of its best defenders. One night after Sayre's Nate Williams scored 41 points, Jackson held him to six in a 68-37 win.
5. Sullivan County (3-0): Four-year starting point guard Kelby Mullen has done just about everything but score a lot during the greatest run in Sullivan history the past three seasons. Now, Mullen is doing that too. The senior is averaging 14.7 points per game while still playing tenacious defense, distributing well and rebounding well at his position. The scoring has been balanced and Sullivan's starting five is one of the area's most well-rounded. The Griffins travel to South Williamsport Tuesday for a big game between two of the three teams that shared the HAC-III title last year.
Player of the Week
Taylor Hillson, Mansfield: The senior point guard played one of the area's most dominant games over the past decade in a 69-66 win over Canton last Wednesday. Hillson scored 48 points, made five steals and grabbed five rebounds while willing Mansfield to the come-from-behind win. The Tigers trailed by 11 in the first half, but Hillson scored 34 second-half points and made 7 of 11 3-point attempts as Mansfield rallied from behind in the fourth quarter. St. John Neumann's Brad Litchfield (57 in 2002) is the only other area player this century to score as many points as Hillson did.
Game of the Week
Muncy at Sullivan County: The Indians have looked really good early and Friday's game will be big in the HAC-III. These rivals have played six times over the past two seasons, including twice in the playoffs, and both reached states last year. Muncy won a thriller at the buzzer in game No. 2 last year.