SLIPPERY ROCK — The underdog Titusville Rockets boys basketball team gave the pro-Hickory crowd at Slippery Rock University’s Morrow Field House reason to pause with stomachs churning full of nerves during the opening 16 minutes of their District 10 Class 4A Quarterfinal on Thursday night.
Titusville shocked the Region 5 and defending District 10 Champion Hickory Hornets by either being in front or tied during every tick on the game clock in the first half, as the Rockets built a 12-point lead midway through the second quarter. However, the reigning state contending Hornets rallied from behind to grab the lead for good in the third quarter en route to a 70-53 victory that ended the Rockets’ campaign.
Hickory (19-4) got champion-like performances out of Peyton Mele (game-high 28 points) and point guard Donald Whitehead (27 points). Connor Evans worked for 14 rebounds in the paint, while adding five points, all in the fourth quarter.
Titusville (16-8) got a team-high 16 points from senior Guy Anthony, who went 6 for 13 from short range. Elijah Perez added 13, including a 6 for 6 mark from the charity stripe. Laird Stover and Charley Evans added eight and seven points, respectively, off the bench, providing key 3-pointers in the opening half.
The visitors on the scoreboard couldn’t have asked for a better start on Thursday. Titusville tallied the first hoop of the game on an Anthony bucket in the post. After the Hornets quickly responded with a lay-up from Whitehead, Elijah Colon’s lay-up put the Rockets ahead for good through the first half.
Anthony nailed three buckets in the paint during the first quarter, while Perez and Evans added a triple a piece. Hickory, on the other hand, started cold from the floor, posting an abysmal 3 for 16 combined line from short and long range in the first quarter, as the Rockets led 16-7 heading into the second quarter.
Two treys from Stover and a couple more deuces off the hand of Anthony inside allowed Titusville to enjoy its largest lead of the night, at 26-14, with just over four minutes remaining in the first half.
However, from there on, Hickory’s stars started to heat up from the floor, which spelled bad news for Titusville’s hopes of pulling off the upset.
Mele nailed the second of his four 3-pointers in the second quarter to cut the Titusville lead down to single digits, at 26-17. Over the course of the final four minutes, the 6-foot, 2-inch junior tallied the final 16 Hickory points of the half, including another triple at the buzzer. Mele sparked a 16-6 Hornets run that saw Titusville’s lead diminish to just two points, at 32-30, heading into the break. He became 13th player in Hornets history to reach 1,000 career points during that span.
“We got off to a good start,” Titusville coach Craig Mehlenbacher said. “We were pushing the ball well. I just think we got a little bit tired there in second when they made that little push to come back and make it a two-point game before halftime.”
Mele got most of his looks in the second quarter from drive and kicks to the wings. Whitehead, who was guarded by Rocket senior Ethan Roberts, didn’t find much room to work in penetration, but was able to locate Mele for open looks.
“We weren’t talking; turning our heads defensively looking out for the screen to the one side, and Whitehead was getting a full head of steam on Ethan,” Mehlenbacher said. “That made Elijah Perez dive down, and he was guarding Mele. We made an adjustment at halftime and he didn’t hit another three in the second half. He’s a great shooter and he’s done this all year. You just have to pick your poison.”
As Mele was held to just seven third-quarter points in the final 16 minutes, Whitehead took over the work load. The 5-foot, 10-inch senior tallied 19 of his 27 points in the second half. Whitehead opened the third quarter with a pull-up jumper to tie the game, and then put Hickory ahead for good with a free throw on the next possession.
“Ethan did a great job on him,” Mehlenbacher said of Roberts’ defense on Whitehead. “From an athletic standpoint, Ethan matched him at points. Whitehead is probably the best point guard in District 10 no matter the classification. When I told Ethan he was guarding Whitehead at practice on Tuesday, Ethan said ‘bring it on.’ That’s the type of competitor he is.”
Hickory kept Titusville off the scoreboard until the 3:47 mark of the third when Perez sank a pair of free throws. In the period as a whole, the Rockets went 0 for 14 from the floor and were forced to settles for just five made shots from the charity stripe; a reflection of the toughness of Titusville’s opponent.
“In the beginning of the third, we weren’t hitting some shots, and it seemed like they were making everything,” Mehlenbacher said. “Whitehead was making 3’s from really deep. If he’s making those shots and they’re making some of those difficult shots like they did in the third, so be it. They’re a great team. I thought, all in all, my boys played a heck of a game from start to finish.”
Hickory improved to 19-4 with the victory and advances to Tuesday’s semifinals, where the Hornets will face Warren. Titusville ends the campaign with a 16-8 ledger and everything left on the floor.
Titusville will loose five seniors heading into the offseason, with 1,000-point scorer Anthony, Roberts, Evans, Perez and Stover all moving on due to graduation.
“I miss the heck out of them,” Mehlenbacher said. “These guys have played an intricate part over the last four years and they’ll be missed.”