Mar. 26—HERSHEY — There is a popular T-shirt worn by Nativity boys’ basketball fans that says, “Toppers Unite.”
That idea was never needed more after the Hilltoppers trailed by double digits in the third period of Thursday’s PIAA Class A state championship game at the Giant Center.
The Hilltoppers united and got it done.
Battling back from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter, Nativity secured Schuylkill County’s first boys’ basketball state championship in 51 years when the Schuylkill League and District 11 champion Hilltoppers defeated Berlin Brothersvalley 51-47 in overtime.
“It’s really hard to describe to you, but we’ve had so many ups and downs over the last three, four years,” Nativity head coach Mike Walborn said, “and we’ve lost so many of those games by one, two three points.”
Not on this day.
This was a Hilltoppers squad that refused to accept defeat against a Mountaineers squad that had won 55 of its previous 57 games and, like Nativity, had its 2019-20 season end in the middle of the PIAA playoffs by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It means so much to us. We had so much support from the school and the students, and I’m so glad they could be here at this,” Nativity senior captain Kegan Hertz said after he accepted the PIAA championship trophy and the team then rushed to the corner of the Giant Center to celebrate with its fans.
Nativity’s grit came to the forefront in overtime as players scrambled for loose balls and forced the Mountaineers into foul trouble. Nativity shot 17-for-25 from the foul line, including 12-for-14 in the overtime period. Senior Keegan Brennan shot 6-for-6 in the 4-minute overtime and classmate Jacob Hoffman went 3-for-4.
“All of the hard work that we did throughout the season, it finally felt great to come out a champion,” Hoffman said. “We put in the work and I knew it would pay off in the end.”
Nativity (24-4) had a chance to claim the crown in regulation.
With the game tied 35-35, Berlin Brothersvalley’s Elijah Sechler, who finished with 20 points, canned a jumper from the lane with 1:06 left to put the Mountaineers up 37-35. Cody Miller answered for Nativity with 41 seconds left, putting back Hertz’s 3-point miss into the basket for a 37-37 tie.
Then, after Sechler was whistled for traveling with 4.3 seconds left, Miller’s baseline jumper at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
The teams traded buckets to begin overtime, then Hoffman sank two foul shots with 1:33 remaining to put Nativity ahead 43-41. After Hertz fought to collect one of his 10 rebounds, he was fouled by the Mountaineers’ Abe Countryman and sank one of two free throws.
Countryman then left after committing his fifth foul with 46.8 seconds left and junior Marquis Ratfcliff sank one of two foul shots to give Nativity a 45-41 lead.
Berlin’s Pace Prosser, who had 15 points, converted a foul shot with 31.2 seconds left to trim the gap to three, but Brennan answered with two foul shots and junior Julius Walborn added two more with 16.2 seconds left to put Nativity up 49-42.
The Mountaineers made one final charge, as Sechler sank a deep 3-pointer with 9.8 seconds left and then posted his seventh steal of the game. On the play, he tangled with Ratcliff, sending him to the floor with an injured right ankle that ended his day. Helped off the court, Ratcliff, who led the Hilltoppers with 12 rebounds, was also whistled for a foul. Sechler sank two free throws to cut Nativity’s lead to 49-47.
Miller inbounded the ball to Brennan, who was fouled by the Mountaineers’ Preston Foor with 5.9 seconds left. Brennan calmly sank two free throws for the 51-47 score and Sechler could only launch an off-target 3-pointer in the remaining time as Nativity’s celebration began.
It was an amazing finish considering the momentum switches that occurred early in the game.
Nativity led 8-2 early before Berlin went on a 12-0 run to take a 14-8 lead. After Nativity cut it to 16-15, the Mountaineers went on a 13-0 spurt that pushed the margin to 29-15 with 6:15 left in the third period. The Hilltoppers committed nine turnovers and scored just seven points in the second quarter.
Berlin led 25-15 at halftime.
“Before the second half, we went into the locker room and we talked about coming back,” Brennan said. “Talked about just grinding away one point at a time. We stop them from scoring. You keep getting buckets and keep getting momentum.”
By the end of the third period, Nativity had outscored Berlin Brothersvalley 17-10 in the quarter and trailed by three, 35-32, after Miller drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
When Hertz, who had 14 points, scored a three-point play with 4:35 left in regulation, the game was tied at 35. Each team tallied just two more points in the remaining time to force overtime and Nativity’s heroics at the foul line.
“They made some more plays than we did,” Berlin Brothersvalley head coach Tanner Prosser said. “Give them credit. I thought they played a great game. They had a good game plan. Their zone defense gave us trouble.”
Julius Walborn, who sank two treys, excelled on defense and finished with a season-best 10 points for the Hilltoppers. Sechler added 11 rebounds to his stellar day for Berlin Brothersvalley.
Nativity became the first Schuylkill County boys’ basketball state champion since Saint Clair topped Laurel Valley in 1970 and the Schuylkill League’s first boys’ PIAA champ since Lourdes in 1990. The Hilltoppers victory also came 15 years to the day that the Nativity girls won the last of their five state championships in 2006.
It is the PIAA’s biggest stage, and on Thursday the Nativity boys delivered.
“Some of these kids had never been on a floor like this. It’s the wow factor, the awe factor that you have to get through and you don’t have a lot of time,” Mike Walborn said. “The kids obviously responded well.”
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