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St. Joseph rallies from 22 down, captures outright title in OT

Doug Gulasy

St. Joseph won’t forget this one anytime soon. Neither will Leechburg but for a very different reason.

The Walter Dlubak Athletic Center became a Spartan party Friday night after St. Joseph stormed back from a 22-point deficit to stun Leechburg, 65-59, in overtime and claim the outright Section 3-A title, the program’s first in nearly two decades.

“Reunions, down the line, I’ll see some of my teammates (and) we’ll talk about this,” said Andrew Sullivan, who scored a game-high 28 points and sent the game to overtime with an off-balance 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds remaining in regulation. “This is one of our best moments we’re going to have.”

St. Joseph (17-5, 10-2) exulted in its first outright section title since 2000 after the game, cutting down the nets in its gym as Queen’s greatest hits played over the speakers. The Spartans denied Greensburg Central Catholic and Leechburg a share of the championship.

What made the game especially memorable for St. Joseph was the way it happened. The Spartans trailed 37-15 in the second quarter and by 15 points at halftime before a furious second-half rally led to a thrilling ending.

Even Kelly Robinson, in his 20th season as St. Joseph’s coach, couldn’t recall offhand a bigger comeback.

“Not that desperate, against such a great team,” Robinson said. “Leechburg’s such a great team. For us to be able to come back from (22) down, I would have to say … it’s such an amazing time. This section title is very special because we’ve probably worked harder for this one than the other ones.”

Matt Arvay’s layup with 1:05 remaining in overtime gave St. Joseph the lead for good as the Spartans outscored Leechburg, 9-3, in the extra period. St. Joseph led once in regulation, when Arvay’s 3-pointer gave the Spartans a 3-0 advantage in the first quarter.

“I knew we were going to keep fighting and we were going to get to the end, and I knew we were going to have a shot,” Sullivan said. “The only people that were stopping us were ourselves.”

The loss provided a sour ending to an otherwise sweet day for Leechburg coach Corey Smith, whose fiancee Ashley gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Tyce earlier Friday.

Leechburg (12-9, 8-4), which beat St. Joseph, 59-46, earlier this season, was seeking its first section title since 2007, and it looked like a pretty safe bet for the first 16 minutes. Connor McDermott drilled six 3-pointers — three each in the first and second quarters — and had 20 points at halftime as Leechburg led 41-26.

The Blue Devils managed just 18 points as a team after that.

“When you’re up, you’ve got to play like you’re up,” Smith said. “You can’t play lackadaisical. You can’t play like the game’s already over. I just told them the game of basketball’s four quarters. Those last three, the third and fourth quarter (and overtime), we did not execute. We did not come out with the energy. We did not box out. We did not do the simple things of the game of basketball that wins you a game.”

St. Joseph cranked up its defensive pressure in the second half: 15 of Leechburg’s 23 turnovers came after halftime. The Spartans cut their deficit to 49-46 after the third quarter, outscoring the Blue Devils, 20-8, in the period.

“At halftime, I just told them to make sure to keep having fun and not get down on themselves, play hard-nosed defense and we’ll chip away at this,” Robinson said.

Sullivan, who kept St. Joseph in the game in the first half with 14 points and finished with six 3-pointers, tied the score 53-53 on a reverse layup with 4:16 remaining in regulation.

Leechburg retook the lead on Dylan Cook’s 3-point play with 1:24 remaining. Cook stole the ball as St. Joseph was playing a stall offense, converted a layup and made the free throw.

Daniel Fábregas missed a tying 3-point attempt, but Leechburg turned the ball over on the rebound, setting up a final chance for St. Joseph with 4.2 seconds left. Grant Bendis passed to Sullivan, who hit the 3 while being fouled. Sullivan missed the free throw to send the game to overtime.

“I just got the best rush I think I’ve ever had,” Sullivan said. “I got that rush, and then I realized, oh my god, we’re still tied. I tried to calm down, but I couldn’t make the free throw. It’s all right, we still got the win.”

McDermott scored 20 points for Leechburg, which also got 13 points from Cook, 12 from Eli Rich and 10 from John Miskinis. The Blue Devils finished third in the section behind St. Joseph and Greensburg Central Catholic.

“We’ll let that tough loss get out of our heads, move on and see what happens Tuesday,” Smith said. “The seed’s going to be harder now going into the playoffs, and it’s going to be a harder opponent. We’ve got our work cut out for us. I tip my hat off to St. Joe’s. They never gave up.”

Arvay added 11 points, including three 3s, Bendis and Fábregas had nine apiece and C.J. Singleton chipped in eight, including a pair of 3s.

“The seniors, they really wanted this,” Robinson said. “As freshmen, they talked about it. They couldn’t wait until their junior and senior year. They could not wait.”


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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
St. Joseph’s Andrew Sullivan scores past Leechburg’s Eli Rich on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 at St. Joseph High School.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
St. Joseph’s Grant Bendis scores past Leechburg’s Connor McDermott on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at St. Joseph High School.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
St. Joseph’s Christopher Singleton, Grant Bendis and Daniel Fabregas celebrate a 22-point comeback to beat Leechburg on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at St. Joseph High School.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
St. Joseph’s Grant Bendis defends on Leechburg’s John Mickinis on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at St. Joseph High School.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
St. Joseph’s Evan Kuczynski grabs the ball in front of Leechburg’s John Miskinis on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at St. Joseph High School.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
St. Joseph’s Andrew Sullivan scores past Leechburg’s Eli Rich on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at St. Joseph High School.
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St. Joseph’s Grant Bendis, Dominic Ferrante, Evan Kuczynski, Daniel Fabregas and Gabriel McKernan celebrate after a 22-point comeback to beat Leechburg on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at St. Joseph High School.