HOLLIDAYSBURG — Isaac Neidbalson and the Ligonier Valley High School boys’ basketball team were itching for another shot at Richland after trading District 6 Class AAA championships with the Laurel Highlands Conference foe the last two years.
But the Rams needed to get through upset-minded Penns Valley first.
Penns Valley was the only team in the district semifinals that had been seeded outside the top four entering the tournament. It has a reputation for imposing its style and forcing foes into deliberate, low-scoring affairs where its scrappiness can pull out a game in the end.
Ligonier Valley turned the tables on Penns Valley and beat it at its own game.
A 13-0 first-half spurt gave Ligonier Valley a double-digit lead, allowing the No. 1 seed to dictate the terms and emerge from the Hollidaysburg Area High School with a 60-46 victory Tuesday night.
The result set up the eagerly-awaited third encounter with Richland (16-7) on Friday (7:30 p.m.) at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson for the district title.
Michael Marinchak and Neidbalson scored 20 points apiece to spearhead Ligonier Valley, which ran its record to 23-2.
“We know when they get a lead, they know how to hold a lead, so we wanted to get up on them and hold our lead that we know how to play with,” Neidbalson said.
Neidbalson scored four in the pivotal flurry that began with LV, the defending district runner-up, trailing, 9-6. Marinchak netted seven during that span.
The duo combined for 24 points in the first half, helping propel the Rams to a 30-17 halftime lead after they pulled ahead by as many as 14.
Matthew Marinchak hit a pair of long three-pointers at the beginning of the second half to hike the advantage to as many as 18 points before the top seeds became more selective in their fearless forays to the hoop or flashy passing. Penns Valley (15-9) got to within nine twice in the final minutes, only to be countered by 5-0 Ligonier Valley runs both times.
“Our key was, ‘Don’t fall into their game,’” Michael Marinchak said. “It was. ‘Let’s push them and make them play our tempo.’
“We had film on them. We’ been studying it since Friday night.
“We knew they liked to slow the game down, and we didn’t want to play into their game. We wanted to push it.”
Penns Valley has been known as a master of keeping the tempo slow ever since Terry Glunt has been its head coach.
“They try to get you to fall asleep. My first stint as coach in ’09-10, we played them before,” Ligonier Valley head coach John Berger said.
“We’re a running team...iIf we get the ball out and move. They’re not a comeback team.”
It played out just as Berger drew it up. And, not only did his team get the pace to its liking, it outhustled the team that usually outhustles its opponents, forging a 35-32 edge in rebounding despite a height disadvantage and winning most 50-50 balls.
“There was some separation,” Glunt said. “They got us out of our comfort zone.”
Caleb Narber scored 14 points to pace Penns Valley while Logan Snyder finished with 11. Penns Valley will advance the state playoffs, anyway and will play No. 2 seed Westmont-Hilltop (19-5) on Friday to decide third and fourth place.
Not only did Ligonier Valley have to deal with Penns Valley, Berger also had to deal with absences.
Already missing Kyle Silk because of PIAA transfer regulations, starting guard Jaxon Ludwig missed the game because of the flu. He is slated to be healthy to play against Richland on Friday.
“My main thing was patching a lineup together,” Berger said. “We put a sophomore in with very little varsity experience, Jacob Hollick, and he played great.”
Hollick wound up with six points, even making a three-pointer. Matthew Marinchak finished with eight points.
District 6 Class AAA Boys’ Basketball Championships Semifinals LIGONIER VALLEY (60)
Mi. Marinchak 9-2-20; Neidbalson 8-3-20; Ma. Marinchak 2-2-8; Mills 2-0-4; Hollick 2-1-6; Seftas 1-0-2; Golden 0-0-0; Grzywinski 0-0-0; Rhoades 0-0-0; Higgins 0-0-0. Totals, 28-8(13)—60
PENNS VALLEY (46)
Tobias 1-0-2; Braucht 2-3-7; Narber 5-2-14; Snyder 4-2-11; Aston 2-0-4; Brinker 3-0-7; Culver 0-0-0; Emel 0-0-0; Welshans 0-0-0. Totals, 17-7(9)—46
Score by Quarters
Ligonier Valley 15 15 14 16 — 60 Penns Valley 9 8 16 13 — 46
Three-point field goals: Ma. Marinchak-2, Hollick; Narber-2, Brinker-2