---- — By Eric Shultz
For The Daily Item
COAL TOWNSHIP -- When the postseason comes around, every minute counts -- a scoring drought or a hot streak here or there can either extend or end a team's championship aspirations.
Unfortunately for Milton, its offense was nowhere to be found during the opening seven minutes of the team's PIAA Class AAA state playoff game with Scranton Prep. The slow start and sub-par performance that followed set the tone for a game that ultimately eliminated the Black Panthers, who lost to the Cavaliers, 69-32.
"They were just better than us, pretty much in every facet of the game tonight," said Milton coach Steve DeLong.
The Cavaliers wasted no time in taking control of the game.
They jumped out to a 6-0 lead -- a lead they would never give up -- one minute into the contest. After James Fives hit the first bucket of the game on a baseline drive, Tim Rose tallied two breakaway layups after the Panthers failed to hit shots on their own end.
Although the Panthers slowed down the game's speed slightly after a timeout, it was still all Cavaliers on the scoreboard. While the Panthers continued to heave and miss three point attempts, the Cavaliers' transition game built a 14-0 lead before Brandon Rogers scored Milton's first basket, which came with 56.4 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
"I thought (the opening run) was very important; it set the stage, set the tempo of the game," said Scranton Prep coach Joe Ferguson.
"We had to establish our tempo. We were a little bit more concerned about us establishing the tempo and the speed of the game, and that's what we did," Ferguson added.
Despite the early dry spell, the Panthers still had plenty of basketball to play. But even when their shots began to fall, the Cavaliers were able to answer on the other end of the court.
"As poorly as we played, you're really only down 11 (points)," DeLong said of the opening scoring drought. "But I think it was just too much of a blow for our kids to deal with, and I think they maybe saw how good this team actually was and knew it was going to be a really difficult battle."
Compounding the Panthers' shooting troubles was the fact that they did not earn many second chances; instead, they gave up defensive rebounds to the Cavaliers and got burnt on the ensuing fastbreaks. Big men like Noah Beh pulled down both offensive and defensive rebounds for the Cavaliers, providing them with plenty of looks at the basket.
The extra effort on the boards was something Ferguson made sure he stressed in the practices leading up to the game.
"Last year, we came down (and) we gave up 17 offensive rebounds against Danville," he said. "So all week, we worked on boxing out and doing little things."
While Beh was the only starter on the Cavaliers that did not finish with double-figures in points, his presence was definitely felt in the paint.
Beh registered six points, but his impact was much greater in other areas of his game. He was most effective at starting plenty of fastbreaks, and also had a couple of monstrous blocks.
"I'm so proud of (Beh), because he was a non-factor offensively, but he was probably the biggest factor in the game," Ferguson said.
The Panthers shot better after the first quarter, but they were not efficient enough to spark a comeback. The team combined for six three-point field goals — including three from Michael Jacobs, who led the team in scoring with 13 points — but it also missed far too many to be a threat from around the perimeter.
"We probably settled for outside shots too much," DeLong said. "Their pressure bothered us; we haven't seen a defense like that all year, and it kind of showed."
"We've been a pretty good shooting team, but I always tell them, 'You don't want to live and die by the three. You can't just settle for outside shots,'" DeLong said. "We wanted to get the ball inside to Travis (Krall), but their pressure on the perimeter really bothered us, and we forced some passes."
Even though the Panthers' season ended on a rather sour note, DeLong said it was a very successful season for them when put into perspective.
"We have to not let this night take anything away from us, because we've had some unbelievable accomplishments this year," he said. "Nobody thought we would be standing here tonight as district champions, playing in the state tournament."
"To win six games last year...it's just a great season. It's something the kids will never forget, and I don't think the community will forget what they've done," DeLong continued. "They made us relevant again."