Long before the best team in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is crowned, district titles are won and lost. The right to continue in the Class 2A tournament was on the line at The Woodshed Friday night when the Maplewood Tigers defeated the West Middlesex Big Reds, 58-56.
Shortly after Alexis Doolittle of the Tigers girls basketball team sang the national anthem and Huston Mattocks landed a perfect back-flip in pregame warmups, West Middlesex converted on a Richie Preston lay-up to start the contest. Sloppy offensive play saw the teams trade possession multiple times before the game was tied around the six-minute mark when Clay Cox got on the board with a right-handed lay-in.
The Big Red scored the next seven points in a row, as Brandon Smith hit an and-one, then Luke Atterholt and Gabe Mild each hit from in close. West Middlesex was up 11-4 with 4:08 to go in the first quarter.
Then the Tigers roared back with a 7-2 run of their own off the hands of Joel Cox for two, a deep ball from Jake Brunot and Jonathon Nageotte’s first conversion.
Near the end of the frame, Noah Greenburg got lost in the corner of the Tigers defense and hit from distance at the buzze. to give the Big Reds a 16-12 advantage heading into the second.
Maplewood answered those points in a hurry, as Nageotte completed a lay-up despite being fouled. He hit the third possible point after receiving a nice back-door feed by Clay Cox on the initial bucket.
Nageotte’s second triple of the season knotted the game at 18. After another Atterholt make, Brunot connected from long distance and Maplewood led for the first time in the game, 21-20. Later in the quarter, a lay-up by Nageotte and a perfect 1-and-1 opportunity by Walker Wheeling led to a steal by Bahle and the Tigers took a 30-27 lead into the locker room.
As the third quarter got underway Joel Cox got an awkward runner to fall before a West Middlesex two. A perfect inbounds play to Clay Cox led to a lay-up in stride, then a banked-in three from the left wing to put Maplewood up 37-32.
With 4:15 to play Brunot pulled in a board, quickly advanced the ball up the floor to Huston Mattocks who was fouled — going 1 for 2. Clay Cox followed going 2 of 2, and the Tigers led with four to play in the third, 42-35.
West Middlesex moved the ball well against the Tigers defense, they just went cold from three after the first half of play.
Joel Cox made a highlight-reel lay-up through contact around the two-minute mark, and the Tigers led by double digits, 45-35.
A steal by Nageotte led to Joel Cox hitting the spin cycle, leaving defenders in his wake as his finger roll kissed off the glass. The lead remained at 10, though, as West Middlesex got a quick answer. Maplewood held the advantage, 47-40, heading into the fourth.
However, the Big Reds began to cut the deficit smaller and smaller, making it a slim 53-51 lead for the Tigers following a bank-three from Hunter Smith at the 3:08 mark.
A putback attempt with around 2:30 left would have tied it for West Middlesex after several misses and offensive rebounds to no avail.
The Tigers sought to close out the contest as Joel Cox headed back to the line with 2:05 left, he went 1 of 2 and it was a one-possession game. Then Shick was fouled and hit both free throws.
Clay Cox went for a dagger 3-point shot from the left wing, missed, and Preston answered immediately for the Big Red. West Middlesex went back on top 56-54, as Maplewood coach Shawn Rhoades used a timeout to refocus his team that had led for the entirety of the second half.
“It was to calm them down,” Rhoades said, “We tense up, and that’s alright but we need to stay level as far as on the court. They got excited. That’s why we called a timeout to calm them down and put things back in perspective.”
With under a minute to play, Brunot was fouled and hit both free throws to tie the game at 56-all, leading to a Big Red timeout.
The Tigers employed their zone defense out of the break and West Middlesex attempted to hold the ball for the final shot. As defensive pressure intensified, Clay Cox was seemingly centimeters from stealing the ball with nothing but hardwood between he and the Maplewood basket. Instead the Big Reds kept the ball in tow.
That’s when Clay sprinted into the West Middlesex backcourt, swiping away the inbounds pass and darting onto the home half of the floor.
“That’s a huge defensive stand at the end,” the Tigers head coach said. “That’s what we told them, that they’re just going to stand out there, and that’s what they did. I mean the one kid had a shot and he pulled back out with 14 seconds to go. That’s how disciplined they are. That’s why I told them to step up a little bit, otherwise we were going to overtime.”
The Woodshed reached a fever-pitch as Clay was fouled, then he stepped to the line and cooly knocked down the first free throw. He missed the second, then saved his own long rebound to a teammate, diving four rows up in the stands to make the play.
Brunot salted it away with 3 seconds left, making a free throw, giving the Tigers a 58-56 victory over the Big Reds.
The Tigers advance to take on the defending state champion Farrell Steelers in the quarterfinals on Feb. 21 at a site and time that is yet to be determined.