With the end of their season staring directly at them in the final minute of the fourth quarter last night, all the incentive the Serra Catholic boys' basketball team needed was in the form of the mustachioed man sitting at the head of their bench, the same place he has been for 31 seasons.
With 43 seconds left and his team down by six points, Serra's 6-foot-8, 300-pound center, Pat Grubbs, gazed at his coach, Bob Rozanski, who, in his three decades leading the program, had never been to a PIAA championship game.
"I just looked over and said to myself, 'coach Rozanski deserves this,' " Grubbs explained. "He's been disappointed too many times. We weren't going to let that happen again."
Serra (29-2) forced overtime and eventually extracted a 78-76 victory against Kennedy Catholic (20-10) in a PIAA Class A semifinal game at Ambridge High School that saw each team take leads of 11 points or more in the first half.
With the win, Serra advanced to Friday's championship at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center where the Eagles will face Philadelphia Freire Charter (18-6).
When Kennedy Catholic took two six-point leads in the final 1:10 of the fourth quarter, it seemed unlikely Serra's season would continue.
But the Eagles fought back behind Grubbs, who finished with 25 points and nine rebounds, and junior point guard T.J. Heatherington, who scored 22 points.
With 13 seconds remaining in regulation and Serra trailing, 71-69, the ball went into Grubbs, who missed an 8-footer. But the next thing he knew the ball was careening back toward him after being deflected after hitting the rim.
The deflection was made by junior Alex Matta, who got up around the rim to tip the ball that eventually hit the rim again, only to bounce off before Grubbs tipped it in with eight seconds left.
"I tipped it in. But we scored because Matta decided he wanted to give extra effort," Grubbs said. "He came out of nowhere to keep it alive for another shot. Without his effort, our season would be done."
In overtime, Kennedy Catholic played without it's best player, junior guard Kyle Randall, who fouled out with 2:08 in the fourth after torching Serra for 25 points.
"Kyle Randall is the guy who makes them go," Rozanski said. "Without him in there, yes, it certainly helped."
In the overtime, Grubbs and Heatherington combined for Serra's seven points, with Grubbs hitting a free throw and making a layup and Heatherington going 3 for 4 from the line.
It wasn't over until Kennedy Catholic's Chace McKinney picked up the ball in a wild scramble with about three seconds left and put up a fallaway 12-foot baseline jumper that would have tied the score. Instead, it hit the rim and bounced away, preserving Serra's first trip to the PIAA championship.
There was no doubt, as Grubbs stood in the postgame locker room, eyes welling with tears, what had driven him and teammates.
"Through all these years, coach Rozanski has been there for everyone at Serra and helped every player who ever came through the school," Grubbs said. "To get him to the state finals is something that we owed him because of all he's done for Serra basketball."
Colin Dunlap can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1459.