MILTON Lewisburg coach John Vaji has been in enough district playoff battles with teams from his own conference over the past several years to know meeting a HAC-II team for a third time in the season doesn't necessarily always resemble the two regular-season games. The veteran coach tried to get that across to his team leading up to Tuesday's District 4 Class AA semifinal with Southern Columbia, but his Green Dragons needed a subtle reminder at the half.
Lewisburg was stuck in the middle of a dogfight with a Tigers team that had upset top-seeded East Juniata in the tournament's quarterfinals when it went to the half leading by eight points.
"At halftime coach came in and said you see what I am talking about now," said Lewisburg's Tanner Host.
Vaji's Green Dragons understood and their lead quickly grew to double digits in the third quarter and they were never seriously threatened over the game's final 13 minutes as they earned a 49-35 victory over the eighth-seeded Tigers.
The win gives the Green Dragons (22-3) the third shot at Loyalsock they were denied in the HAC tournament when they lost to St. John Neumann in the tournament semifinals. The Lancers defeated Towanda last night and have defeated the Green Dragons, who clinched a berth in the PIAA Class AA tournament with last night's win, twice this season.
Before the showdown with the Lancers became a reality, however, Lewisburg had to put away a scrappy Southern team that battled for every rebound, despite their lack of size against Lewisburg's daunting frontline. The Tigers (13-12) more than held their own on the offensive glass and trailed Lewisburg by just a point after a Mike Klebon 3-pointer in the second quarter.
Host, though, provided a lift off the bench and answered Klebon's 3-pointer with one of his own and Lewisburg scored the final seven points of the first half for a 22-14 lead.
"Our kids didn't get too excited and they didn't try and force things," Lewisburg coach John Vaji said. "They stayed with our game plan and stayed with our offense and executed.
"I was real proud of the guys to not put too much pressure on themselves and to just go out and play the game."
A Matt Fedorjaka 3-pointer pushed the halftime lead to 10 with under six minutes remaining in the third quarter and it reached 13 before five straight by Southern closed the gap to eight at the end of three.
Lewisburg never allowed the Tigers any closer and its defense allowed just nine fourth-quarter as it closed the door on a possible second Southern upset.
Sophomore Sam Allen was dominant inside for the Green Dragons, finishing with 16 points and eight rebounds while blocking and altering several Southern field goal attempts. Flannery added 11 and Host, who credited his dad for telling him to be more aggressive offensively, finished with nine points and provided the energy with his defense and hustle during the 7-0 run to close the first half.
"Tanner was a huge, huge spark off the bench," Vaji said. "He was able to attack the basket and get a couple of layups out of it and that allowed us to expand it."
Klebon led Southern with 12 points.
"Klebon knows how to the attack the basket and his IQ is great, but still when you get in (the paint) there is three trees and a hand is up and it doesn't look the same when you get in there," said Southern Columbia coach Joey Britto, whose team only reached double digits in one of the four quarters, including just five points in the second.
Despite the loss, the Tigers will play Towanda in the district consolation game later this week with the hopes of continuing their season in the PIAA playoffs.
Walker Palacz 1 0-0 3, Mike Klebon 5 0-0 12, Kyle Mostick 2 1-3 5, Cody Olsen 2 0-0 5, Luke Rarig 2 1-4 5, Doug Michaels 0 0-0 0, Brandon Ciocco 0 0-0 0, Cam Young 1 0-0 2, Dave Brokus 1 0-0 3. Totals: 14 2-7 35.
Sam Allen 7 2-3 16, Will Sigl 1 0-1 2, Nick Costagliola 1 0-0 2, Matt Fedorjaka 2 0-2 5, Jesse Flannery 4 2-2 11, Nadir Boone 1 2-2 4, Drew Newcomb 0 0-0 0, Tanner Host 4 0-0 9. Totals: 20 6-10 49.
Southern9 5 12 9 35
Lewisburg11 11 12 15 49
3-point goals: Southern 5 (Klebon 2, Palacz, Olsen, Brokus); Lewisburg 3 (Flannery, Fedorjaka, Host).
Records: Lewisburg 22-3, Southern 13-12. Next: Lewisburg vs. Loyalsock (District championship), TBA; Southern vs. Towanda (District consolation), TBA