By Corey J. Corbin
Allied News Sports Correspondent
MERCER COUNTY AREA —
While fiction and history have given us many a love affair, perhaps, there has been no great love affair than the one between the Lakeview boys basketball team and its community that has developed over the past four months.
The Lakeview community provided its teenage ‘heroes’ a champion’s return by giving them a firetruck and police escort despite having its storybook season come to a gut-wrenching end with a 56-44 loss to WPIAL champion and No. 1 ranked Beaver Falls (26-3) in the PIAA Western Region Semifinals Saturday afternoon at Edinboro University’s McComb Fieldhouse.
“That right there is what personifies the Lakeview community,” said Sailor coach Gary Burke, whose Lakeview squad received a standing ovation as it exited the court Saturday afternoon. “They’re going to respect you for the hard work and dedication you put in, for putting your heart on the line each and every night. When you have over half the community (in the stands) supporting us, it’s overwhelming. It’s humbling and it’s greatly appreciated.”
The loss dropped the Sailors to 23-5. Four of Lakeview's 5 losses this year came to West Middlesex and Beaver Falls — the two teams competing for the right to play in this weekend's Class AA championship game in Hershey.
“For several months, this team sold out for each other and you can't ask for anything more,” Lakeview coach Gary Burke said. “We talk team all the time. Yeah, the individual stuff is great, but we talk about the team being more important than anything. I don’t know how you could be more proud of a group of young men that came in day-after-day and battled. A lot of people thought Lakeview was pretty good, but I don’t think anyone expected us to get this far. That says so much about these kids. This was very, very special.”
With the loss, Lakeview must say good-bye to a pair of 1,000-point scorers in Dalton Boggs and Casey Greggs, a two-year starter in Coty Gander and a valued reserve in Andrew Fowler.
“I was asked a couple weeks ago if this was a great group of basketball players coming all the way up through,” Burke said. “I said, ‘No, they were a great group of kids.’ They were great kids from the word go, but they weren’t great basketball players. What they’ve been able to accomplish to this point is absolutely amazing.
“Dalton, Casey and Coty, especially, have played a lot of basketball and they got Andrew Fowler to come with them to play basketball. Those four have been thick as thieves. They are four kids that wanted the best for themselves and everyone around them. They were developed. If it weren't Coach Boggs getting these guys started in the elementary program and if it weren’t for our LBA program and the coaches all the way up through, these kids wouldn’t be sitting here with their hearts ripped out of their chests. Some day they’ll be able to look back and see what we really accomplished this year. Yeah, we don't have any banners up on the wall for the season, but they’ll be able to look back and see what we really accomplished this year. Yeah, we don’t have any banners up on the wall for the season, there hasn’t been a team that has garnered as much respect from the community than this group of seniors right there.”
Beaver Falls has made a living on using its full-court press to create all kinds of havoc — and easy transition baskets.
Perhaps for the first time all year, the full-court press was a nonfactor as the Sailors had very little problems solving the Tigers’ vaunted pressure defense, but Beaver Falls still coerced Lakeview into a season-high 26 turnovers.
“We handled their full-court pressure bar none better than anyone else has up to this point in the season,” Burke said. “Our kids were mentally prepared for their full-court press and we took them out of it. It was little bit of a surprise that they were able to turn us over as many times as they did in the half-court. We had uncharacteristic turnovers from guys that generally don’t make turnovers.
“You literally can’t take a break against their defense. Their defensive pressure all over the floor determines the outcome of the game. Their defensive pressure and their tenacity was too much, because we didn’t have enough ballhandlers on the floor.”
After Beaver Falls jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, the Sailors charged back to keep the deficit to within a pair of buckets — 9 times they were within 6 points — but each time, Beaver Falls answered to push their lead to a more comfortable cushion.
The most notable coming at the start of the second half when Gander converted a traditional three-point play to pull the Sailors to within 27-24.
The Lakeview defense forced Beaver Falls into 3 straight misses, but the Sailor offense failed to capitalize on the opportunity before the Tigers reeled off 5 straight points to take a more comfortable 32-24 lead.
Two free throws from Greggs, a traditional three-point play from Boggs and a Zach VanDusen lay-up ended the third frame with the Sailors pulling to within 35-31, but Beaver Falls extended its lead back to 9 at 42-33 on a trey from Drew Cook and a pair of freebies from Elijah Cottrill and Dan Stratton.
Again, Lakeview charged back and cut the lead to 46-41 on a Boggs triple midway through the fourth quarter, but the Sailors would get no closer as Beaver Falls connected on 6-of-10 freebies to ice the game before Cottrill literally slammed the door shut with a transition dunk in the closing seconds.
“We’d get it to within a bucket or two and we’d make some unforced errors,” Burke said. “You have to give credit to Beaver Falls, because our kids were expecting that extra pressure and when they didn’t get it, we anticipated it and made a mistake because of it. That goes with the territory. When you get to this point in the season, you’re eventually going to run into a great team, but there's a reason why we're in the Elite Eight. We proved that tonight.”
The Sailors can take pride in limiting the typically high-flying Tigers in check offensively, limiting a Beaver Falls offense that had reached 78 points at least 7 times this season to just 56.
“I thought our defense did a good job of pushing them out and not allowing penetration,” Burke said. “At times, our rebounding was great. Eighty percent of the time, we boxed out as well as we have all season long. Then, we’d give two offensive rebounds in the same possession on the same trip down the floor. That comes back to kill you.”
Lakeview was led by its three senior starters — Boggs (a team-high 16-points, 5 rebounds), Greggs (12 points, 4 assists) and Gander (10-point, 12-rebound double-double).
“We needed to do a better job of making ourselves available to Dalton when he came across the half-court,” Burke said. “At times, we got lackadaisical and didn’t give Dalton the help he needed to get us into our offensive sets.
“We did have some good looks. The kids scrapped and they hustled. They had some great basketball looks Our kids just battled and that’s all you can ask for.”
Notes: Cook led Beaver Falls with 19 points, while Stratton and Cottrill contributed 15 and 14 points, respectively. … Beaver Falls had 9 turnovers — including 5 in the third quarter. … Lakeview held a 29-22 edge on the glass. … VanDusen had 4 assists. … Lakeview knocked down 15-of-37 field goals, 10-of-12 free throws and 4-of-11 from downtown. … Beaver Falls made 17-of-43 shots, 19-of-25 from the line and 4-of-8 from behind the three-point line. … According to available records, Greggs finished his career with 1,223 points.