WHITEHALL — With their season on the line, the Panthers pounced in the final quarter and found a way to survive and advance.
Maurice Whittle scored a game-high 20 points, Christian Fermin added nine and Justin Smith hit each of his final four free throws to lead No. 9 Pocono Mountain West to a 54-49 victory over Whitehall on Coach Tracy Court at Whitehall High School in the first round of the District 11 Class 6A boys basketball playoffs on Wednesday night.
Pocono West advances to the quarterfinal final round in which it will face No. 1 William Allen on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Easton Middle School.
The Panthers (11-12), who trailed all game, scored their most critical points with 43 seconds to play when Fermin, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, sank a put-back layup to give West its first lead, 50-49.
The Panthers defended and worked time perfectly, then got some much-needed insurance when Smith hit each of his free throws in the final 20 seconds to allow West to hold onto the win.
Watching his team storm back after trailing by 12 points early in the game, West coach Rich Williams was so overwhelmed after the swing of emotions and late-game pressure that he had to sit down.
“We’ve got fighters,” Williams said. “We haven’t given up all season. I mean I know it’s not the prototypical West year, but geez man, we’ve been in the playoffs for four games before this. I just think we’ve got some fighters who have no quit in them. We just continue to compete and they weren’t going to give up.”
Pocono West, who lost 57-40 to Whitehall on Jan. 12, came alive in the final four minutes of action to outscore Whitehall 16-2 in that span. The Zephyrs’ last points came from a Luke Gilbert layup with 2:39 to play.
Williams credited much of the defensive effort to sophomore Leo Kea.
“I thought Leo Kea off the bench made a huge difference,” Williams said. “He’s a sophomore and he’s given us minutes all year long, but he hasn’t given us minutes like that where he was so active defensively. And he’s probably the second-best defender on our team, at least our coaching staff thinks so. I thought him giving us really good defensive minutes turned the tide for us there.
“And let’s face it, guys had ice water in their veins, man.”
Offensive rebounds were a critical factor in Wednesday’s win. West wound up with 19, 12 of which from Whittle in a double-double performance. Whitehall only had nine offensive boards.
“I thought we hit the offensive glass pretty good in the last couple minutes as well,” Williams said. “I thought they had some trouble with us on the glass, but we pushed the tempo, and that changed things as well.”
The Panthers trailed 19-7 at the end of the first quarter. The effort appeared to be there, but the Zephyrs were too strong in the paint on either side of the court.
But as Williams said, even behind 30-21 at halftime, his team displayed resiliency, outscoring Whitehall 15-6 in the third frame.
The most critical adjustment West made was changing from the defense between halves.
“My genius idea was to play them 2-3 (zone),” Williams said, “so I guess I should have listened to my defensive coordinator (assistant) coach (Kenny) Piontkowski and played them man because once we switched to man, we played them really well.”
This never-give-up attitude is nothing new for Williams and his Pocono West squad. As he alluded to, the Panthers needed to win each of their final four games of the regular season just to qualify for the district tournament.
Their five consecutive wins now find them in the district quarterfinals. An upset win over Allen, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference champions as of Feb. 13, would solidify West’s spot in the PIAA state tournament for the third time in four years.
Before Williams pays any attention to that, he knows how difficult Saturday will be against the Canaries, who defeated West 56-44 on Jan. 22.
“Can you prep for the champs?” Williams said. “Toughness, grit, great point-guard play, enormous presence. Two big guys inside and just a stable full of guards that are really tough and can shoot the ball and move it around. They’re excellent. There’s a reason why they’re the league champs, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
District 11 Class 6A First Round
No. 9 PM West 54, No. 8 Whitehall 49
PM West 7 14 15 18 – 54
Whitehall 19 11 6 13 – 49
PM West 54
Mickens 0 0-0 0, Bray 4 0-0 10, Campbell 1 0-0 2, Smith 2 4-5 9, Kea 2 0-0 4, Pagan 0 0-0 0, Fermin 4 1-2 9, Whittle 8 4-6 20. Totals: 21 9-13 54.
Holubowski 8 1-2 17, Foster 2 0-0 6, Gilbert 1 0-0 2, McGinley 2 0-2 4, Werner 0 2-2 2, Bashore 0 0-0 0, Buskirk 8 0-0 18. Totals: 21 3-6 49.
3-pointers: PMW 3 (Bray 2, Smith); W 4 (Foster 2, Buskirk 2).