ANDOVER — What a difference a month and a half makes for the Pymatuning Valley Lakers.
On Dec. 18, the Lakers lost by 16 points to rival Grand Valley on the road. When the Mustangs traveled to Andover for the rematch of the Battle of the Valleys on Friday, that result looked like a dip in the road for PV.
The Lakers took the lead at the 6:19 mark in the third quarter and never trailed again en route to 56-52 win at PV High School. As to what had changed between the two games against the rivals, PV junior forward Morgan Babic said the Lakers have gotten into the swing of things on the court.
“We played them early in the year, so we were getting right back into basketball — we were a little off,” Babic said of the Lakers’ first game against the Mustangs. “We’ve played through the season now, we got more experience and we came back much better than the first time.”
While getting one back on their rival motivated the Lakers, the game had the added emphasis of deciding who was to be on top of the Northeastern Athletic Conference, Stars Division standings. The win put the Lakers (8-6, 7-3 NAC Stars) tied with the Mustangs (9-7, 8-3) on losses heading into the final weeks of the season.
To sit atop the NAC Star Division standings didn’t seem all that likely when the Lakers began the season 1-4 with that loss at GV. Still, PV coach Ryan Shontz said the Lakers understood the importance of the result.
“It’s pretty fantastic,” Shontz said. “We still have a lot of work to do. We just knew losing one at their place, we needed to get one here. The whole season was kind of make-or-break on (Friday night). So, we’re back to where we want to be — we’re tied toward the top (of the NAC), and we’ve got a chance to control our own destiny and win the conference.”
PV used the inside presence of Babic in the second quarter to take a three-point lead into halftime, as the junior forward dropped eight in the period. He also added another six points in the opening two minutes of the fourth quarter to help the Lakers stretch the lead out to 16 points with 6:01 remaining in the game.
Babic finished the game with a double-double, dropping a game-high 22 points and snatching 13 rebounds.
“It’s always been a plan to get him the ball, but sometimes, he doesn’t realize how good he is and he’ll hide on the weak side,” Shontz said of Babic. “I think he knows if we’re going to be good, he’s got to have the ball in his hands, and he’s really becoming assertive in the post.”
That 16-point lead didn’t exactly put the game out of reach, however, as the Mustangs came roaring back to make things interesting late.
Trailing 53-40 with less than four minutes remaining in the game, GV went on a 10-0 run to make it a one-possession game with 1:07 remaining. The Mustangs forced a couple of PV turnovers (the Lakers committed 22 in the game) and turned them into layups on the other end. Noah Glavickas (19 points) also drained a 3-pointer with 2:42 remaining — a rarity for the Mustangs.
Shontz admitted the GV comeback had him concerned on the sideline.
“We got a little amped up when we pushed it out to (16), but I have a long memory,” Shontz said. “Grand Valley’s been on this court, we’ve been up 30 and they’ve been back and took it to us. So, there’s no lead big enough for those guys playing defense like the way they were.”
Following a pair of Glavickas free throws to make it 53-50, the Lakers broke the GV press and had Isaac Orahood receive a pass from Joey Hunt to make it a two-possession game again.
From that point, the Mustangs’ issues from the field showed themselves again, as they couldn’t connect on a single field goal in the final minute of the game. GV finished with a 26.6-shooting percentage (17-of-64).
Turk explained that his players were getting good looks, especially from beyond the arc, but his players weren’t making them. That changed a bit during the 10-0 run that got the Mustangs back into the game, though.
“We had to take a couple of our extra big guys out and went small lineup, tried to put a little extra full-court (pressure) on them — tried to man up and were able to get some steals,” Turk said. “We converted them into layups, and we actually did in that stretch hit a 3.”
Although GV lost the outright lead atop the NAC Stars Division, Turk said the season isn’t over yet, and the Mustangs still could get at least a share of the title if they win the rest of their conference games.
“We keep winning, things will work out, I think, and that’s what I told the guys, ‘Keep your heads up. We’ve got a tough week next week,’” Turk said. “It doesn’t get any easier — there’s no easy games coming up, that’s for sure.”