Throughout the 2018-19 season, the Elizabethtown Area High School boys basketball team has faced adversity late in games. But none were more significant than what turned out to be the last game of the year for the Bears.
The team took a long road trip to Central Cambria High School in Ebensburg on Friday, March 8, to face Greater Johnstown, the District 6 champion, in the first round of the PIAA Class 5A playoffs. Despite a frantic comeback to tie the game at the end of regulation, the Bears barely came up short, losing 56-52 in overtime and ending their season with a 17-13 record.
The first quarter was an indicator of the craziness to come. Elizabethtown shot out to an 11-4 lead early, thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers from sophomore Luke Pierson, followed by another from senior Larry Locker and a layup from junior Elijah Eberly.
The momentum briefly shifted toward Johnstown after senior Dewayne Jones threw down a one-handed alley-oop dunk, but Locker immediately answered with an insane dunk of his own, drawing a foul in the process and kickstarting a 10-0 Elizabethtown run. By the end of the first, the Bears led 21-10.
“We just made shots,” head coach Rocky Parise said. “We gave up that lob, and we talked about that at length in practice, but they just hit us with it. We were in our 1-3-1, so we weren’t expecting it, but then Larry has the best dunk of his career right after that. It was a good quarter, but we just really struggled to score for two-and-a-half quarters after that.”
Those offensive struggles were the result of an active Johnstown defense, which held Elizabethtown to just four points in the second. The Trojans started that quarter with nine straight points, and the two sides ended up going to halftime tied at 25-25.
Midway through the third, the Trojans took their first lead since the initial basket of the game on a 3-pointer to go up 30-27. They briefly held a 37-29 advantage after a 5-0 run, but Elizabethtown did manage to cut it to 38-33 ahead of the fourth.
With just over four minutes remaining in regulation, Johnstown had its largest lead of the night at 43-34. Then, down 46-38 at the two-minute mark, the Bears mounted a furious comeback. They began fouling the Trojans, who simply could not convert their free throws, ultimately going 3 for 11 in the quarter.
Meanwhile, Elizabethtown’s offense finally showed signs of life. Senior Amos Kollie sank a running layup, and Eberly hit four huge foul shots to narrow the gap to 46-44. After a steal from junior Ryan Parise, the Bears brought the ball up the court to set up a potential game-tying play.
Unlike many of their late-game possessions, what they drew up didn’t work; Locker lost the ball going up to the hoop on a layup attempt. However, after a mad scramble, Pierson somehow managed to get the ball to Kollie, who dashed to the hoop for a left-handed layup, tying the game at 46-46 with 4.7 seconds left. The Trojans actually turned the ball over again on a deep pass, giving Elizabethtown a shot to win the game. However, Kollie’s 3-ball just rimmed out, sending the teams to OT.
“We just tried to muck it up at the end, make it ugly and make them make foul shots,” Coach Parise said. “We did some different stuff at the end that they had a tough time with, and our guys just kept stepping up and making plays. Elijah kept making foul shots, and Amos made a huge play. We had the ball with four seconds left tied at our own basket. We had a great look at it, but it just didn’t fall.”
Johnstown went ahead on its first possession of the extra period via an and-one from Jones. Eberly answered with a fastbreak layup, but the Trojans then picked four points thanks to a layup from senior Keyon Gause and two free throws from senior D.J. Chatman. A Pierson putback and a Ryan Parise layup would keep the game close, but unlike regulation, the Trojans were steady at the free throw line, hitting 5 of 6 in OT, which was enough to push them to victory.
Junior Anderson Franklin led the Trojans in scoring with 15 points, impressive considering that he fouled out at the midway point of the fourth. Jones wasn’t far behind with 14 points. Gause, who was arrested and charged with simple assault a week prior to the game, and Chatman came off the bench to score 12 and 8 points, respectively.
Pierson had a trio of 3-pointers in the first quarter, ultimately finishing with 13 points, as well as 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Eberly (11 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals) also had a balanced stat line.
But it was Locker and Kollie, two of the team’s three seniors, who came up big when it mattered. Locker had a game-high 16 points, along with 5 rebounds. He ends his high school career as the all-time leading scorer in program history with 1,268 points. Kollie (6 points, 4 assists) was briefly the hero as a result of his tying score in regulation. They and senior sixth man Dylan Sweger will be dearly missed by the rest of the team.
“They gave their heart and souls to the program,” Coach Parise said. “When we’re back here next year and we win this game, it’s gonna be because of them, and we really believe that.”
If all goes according to plan, the Bears should be able to move forward next year. Eberly, Pierson and Ryan Parise will return as starters, and junior Brody Beach, who was excellent during the postseason should move into the lineup as well. They’ll have to get contributions from the rest of the underclassmen, however.
“I think this season we got over the hump of knowing that we’re good and we can win,” Coach Parise said. “We still had to get over that at the beginning of the year, and it took us some time. I know next year we’re gonna have another great summer. We’re gonna work our butts off, and we’ll have that confidence that we are a good team coming into the season. I think that’s really gonna be the difference for next year.”
All in all, though, this season may rank as the best in school history. Of Elizabethtown’s three state playoff appearances, the four-point loss was the closest. Coach Parise certainly thinks so.
“How couldn’t it be?” he said. “We won two league playoffs game, we won two district games and we went to overtime in a state game. We almost did something that the program has never done before. I think we’ll go down as one of those teams that people talk about 20 or 30 years down the road.”