NORTHUMBERLAND – On a day when the Juniata Mennonite boys basketball team thought it would be preparing for an afternoon playoff matchup against one of the Allegheny Christian Athletic Association’s No. 2 seeds, the Lions instead played twice.
The first, a play-in game at Meadowbrook Christian made necessary by Cambria County Christian’s withdrawal, then return, to the tournament, the Lions scrapped through, including overcoming a scoreless quarter to edge Northumberland Christian 54-48 in overtime to clinch a tournament berth.
The second, a matchup three hours later against the second seed from the west, Great Commission, meant Juniata Mennonite played two games in fewer than six hours. It may sound daunting, but Juniata Mennonite coach Dennis Zimmerman said his guys were up for it.
“I don’t think it was a problem. The guys were excited to play this morning and were excited to play” at Northumberland Christian, the tournament host, he said.
But it was in the second game where the Lions ran out of steam, falling to Great Commission, 56-49.
Juniata Mennonite (12-8) will take on either Cambria County or Columbia County in the fifth-place game, today at 1:30 p.m.
In the late game, Juniata Mennonite crept its way out of the gates and the visually bigger, deeper Bears took advantage, jumping to a 5-0 lead. The Lions’ two-three zone wasn’t impermeable as the Bears utilized cutters and baseline runners to get free looks at the bucket and convert opportunities from the paint.
Offensively, Juniata Mennonite struggled as Great Commission fronted the Lions’ big man in the post, forcing them to swing the ball and shoot from outside. Despite getting some good opportunities, the Lions struggled to convert shots and the team found itself in a seven-point hole heading to the second quarter.
Juniata Mennonite’s offensive woes continued in the second stanza as a lack of movement down low forced the Lions to launch some shots from the outside. The Bears continued their attack and opened the quarter with a 7-0 run, largely due to the play of Great Commission’s Jonah Salyards, who racked up nine of his own in the quarter.
“Coming into the game all we heard about was number 12, he’s their man and he’s a good ball player,” Juniata Mennonite coach Dennis Zimmerman said.
As for the Lions, a scoring drought from the first frame dragged its way into the second until Caleb Gehman broke the silence with a bucket with 3:35 remaining in the half.
Luke Showers followed suit and knocked in a 3-pointer that brought the Lions within 11. The Lions were able to muster just one more field goal in the quarter and took a 13-point deficit to the locker room.
The third quarter saw much of the same from Great Commission but the Lions became more active on offense, creating open looks and converting from the paint more frequently. Showers netted the first five points of the half for the Lions; Gehman chipped in a bucket off a break away and Jesse Watts knocked down a free throw to complete a three-point play and bring his squad to within seven.
Great Commission remained persistent though, utilizing its bigs in the paint and converting on close shots to take its lead up to 10 points heading to the final stanza.
With eight periods of basketball already under their soles on the day, the Lions attempted to muster yet another comeback. With 5:40 remaining in the game, Showers dropped another 3-pointer to get his team within six, but that’s as close as the Lions would get. Each time Juniata Mennonite mustered some momentum, Great Commission had an answer
As the quarter progressed, the Lions initiated a full-court press that temporarily succeeded, inducing a turnover on a misguided pass by the Bears. The subsequent attempt toward the bucket was immediately met by Salyards, who rejected the shot.
An eight-point deficit forced the Lions to foul, sending the Bears’ best player to the line four consecutive times. Salyards put the nail in the coffin as he converted six of his eight attempts.
The Lions were paced by Showers, who dropped 18 points, 15 coming from behind the arc while teammates Gehman and Watts scored 14 and 13, respectively.
“Luke is always tough,” Zimmerman said. “He doesn’t care about points, he just cares about opportunities.”
Zimmerman added that Gehman always has the potential to explode because of his physical ability.
Thursday morning, it was a big-school atmosphere at Meadowbrook Christian.
After Juniata Mennonite went scoreless in the third then catching up and trading leads late, the Warriors, trailing by two points in regulation, forced an extra period when Ryan King drove swiftly to the hoop and laid in what would be the game-tying bucket that would send the game to overtime.
Showers took over for the Lions in the extra period as he went two-for-two from beyond the arc while converting all four of his free-throw opportunities.
Watts, who led the team in regulation dominated the paint for much of the game and dropped 23 points while going three for five from the line. Gehman also helped the team’s cause, netting nine points and converting both of his free-throw opportunities.