Young Indians get a taste of districts

ALTOONA – After eight years, the Juniata boys returned to playoff basketball; Monday’s game against Blairsville was the Indians’ first appearance in the District 6 field.

But after eight minutes, it was pretty obvious that Juniata was overmatched against the Bobcats, the No. 5 team in the Class AA bracket with 17 wins to their credit before the tip.

Blairsville rattled off 16 unanswered points in the opening stanza on the way to a 69-43 victory. Juniata, the 12th seed, finishes at 11-11.

Keying the Bobcats in the first was Colton McMillan, a senior guard who ended the night second on the scoring list with 20 points; 12 of those came in the first as he scored 10 of the 16 in the run that established Blairsville as the team to beat.

Juniata coach Al Ream said it was all bout confidence, swagger and experience that his team is still developing.

“We came in to play, but not at that level,” he said. “We knew that they were good, that they were quick – they didn’t look quite as quick as they were tonight. They came in with a drive and an intensity that we didn’t match.”

What could have been a watershed moment for Juniata came at the end of the quarter, when Justin Mingle pulled one off the boards and went coast-to-coast for a layup that ended the period, and gave the Indians at least a momentary lift.

Blairsville took it back through a stingy second quarter in which both teams struggled to convert at the basket.

“They took (our momentum) away,” Ream said. “Momentum is a big thing. They got the momentum early, and they kept the momentum. We couldn’t turn the tide.”

The Bobcats extended their lead to as much as 26 before fouls tempered the aggressiveness of the game, another area owned by the senior-laden squad. Blairsville went after the ball, blocking, forcing turnovers, steals – Juniata struggled just to keep possession at times.

“They were more aggressive than we were, hit the boards harder than we did. All of those things we’re going to learn from there,” Ream said. “He’s got a lot of kids graduating. I’ve got a lot of kids coming back. This was a good learning experience.”

In the second half, scoring leader Troy Willims (23 points) kept a comfortable margin for the Bobcats. The Indians got good performances from Josh Parson, who had 12 points, and Justin Mingle, with 11. Both shot just under 50 percent from the floor.

Veteran coach Ream stressed that this is not the end, but just the beginning – only one upperclassman is on the Juniata roster, and he didn’t appear in Monday’s game. Most of the big guns have two more years.

“I told the kids, I’ve coached a lot of kids in track and gotten to districts in football. You’ve got to be there one time to dance, to understand what it takes to get to the next round of that competition,” Ream explained. “I think our kids learned from this experience – I’m hoping they learned from this – so that next tear they’ll have a drive to get to that next level.”