It's win-or-go-home time for high school basketball teams around the state.
In other words, it's Mt. Lebanon's favorite time of year.
Alex Ventrone made the winning free throws in the final minute and Mt. Lebanon bounced back from a loss in the WPIAL semifinals by defeating WPIAL champion Bethel Park, 37-34, in a PIAA Class AAAA first-round playoff game Friday at Baldwin.
"Our kids understand that losing a game in the WPIAL playoffs won't define you. Right now, it will. Or you go home," Mt. Lebanon coach Dori Oldaker said.
Mt. Lebanon (23-3), which was eliminated from the WPIAL playoffs by Chartiers Valley, began its march to what it hopes will be another long playoff run by winning the rubber match against Section 4 rival Bethel Park (23-3).
The Blue Devils have won 22 PIAA playoff games since 2008, advancing to the championship game four of the past five seasons. They will play Penn-Trafford in a second-round game Tuesday.
Bethel Park had earned its first WPIAL title last Saturday.
"It was tough to have to play Mt. Lebanon in the first round," said Bethel Park coach Jonna Burke. "They're probably the strongest team in the western half of the state."
In a battle of excellent defensive teams, Mt. Lebanon held a 34-30 lead late in the fourth quarter, before Bethel Park rallied to tie the score.
Bethel Park pulled within two on Harper Zimmer's jumper with 2:47 left. Mariah Penascino then came up with a steal, and Megan Marecic scored on a transition layup to make it 34-34 with 1:42 remaining.
Ventrone was fouled with 50 seconds left and made two free throws to give Mt. Lebanon the lead.
After a Mt. Lebanon steal, Margie McCaffrey was fouled and made one of two free throws to extend the lead to 37-34 with 22 seconds left.
Bethel Park tried to draw up a play for a tying basket.
"What we were trying to do was get a 3-point attempt from Marecic or Zimmer," Burke said.
But Zimmer misfired on a two-point shot, then Marecic missed a 3-pointer just before time expired.
"It was nerve-wracking," Mt. Lebanon senior Jordan Holmes said of the last possession. "We said we needed to play hard and communicate. We went out and did that."
Holmes led Mt. Lebanon with 10 points and made a big impact defensively with a few key blocks.
Marecic scored 13 points for Bethel Park.
Mt. Lebanon never trailed after Madeleine Collins' 3-pointer made it 19-17 with 3:21 left in the third.
"It would have been nice to make it to Palumbo for WPIAL's," said Holmes, "but now we're focused on a state title."