It's been a longstanding tradition for Pennsylvania high school basketball fans to throw Hershey Kisses onto the court when their school earns a berth in the PIAA championship game.
For Beaver Falls players who hadn't known about the ritual, they found out all about it Tuesday night.
Beaver Falls punched its ticket to the PIAA Class AA boys championship game Tuesday by defeating West Middlesex, 59-47, in a semifinal game played in front of a huge crowd at Sharon High School.
Seconds after the final buzzer sounded, Beaver Falls players and fans filled the court just as seemingly hundreds of Hershey Kisses were tossed into the middle of the celebration. It was an affirmation that the Tigers were bound for Hershey, one win away from winning the third PIAA title in school history.
Beaver Falls (27-3) will play District 2 champion Holy Cross (27-5) in Saturday's championship at the Giant Center. Holy Cross, located in Dunmore near Scranton, is a merger of the former Bishop Hannan and Bishop O'Hara high schools formed in 2007.
"It means you're a game away from accomplishing what you signed up to do," Beaver Falls coach Doug Biega said. "I told them in the locker room, 'We didn't sign up to go to Hershey. We signed up to win.' So we have some work left ahead of us."
Biega's bunch was fully aware of that as the players prepared for Tuesday's game against a West Middlesex team that Beaver Falls had defeated, 50-41, in the season opener.
Beaver Falls appeared to be headed for another win against the Big Red in the early going, with the Tigers defense forcing four early turnovers that led to a 7-0 lead. Sophomore Javon Turner scored twice on transition layups during the run, and the Tigers went on to a take a 12-9 lead after one quarter.
"We knew we had to come out and show out," Turner said. "We had to play hard. That's just what we planned to do from the get-go. As soon as we came out of the locker room, we planned to play hard defense. Offense will come."
The second quarter was a different story for Beaver Falls. West Middlesex scored the first five points to take a 14-12 advantage, and the Big Red went on to outscore Beaver Falls, 16-10, to take a 25-22 halftime lead.
The Tigers were burned by West Middlesex's Jerrod Palmer (two 3-pointers) and Trey Staunch (six points).
With his team trailing at the break, Biega was anything but nervous during the intermission. As it turns out, he was somewhat happy -- in an odd way -- the Tigers had some catching up to do.
Said Biega: "I told the kids at halftime, 'This is my fifth western final and the only ones we won were the ones we were losing at the half.' It was a good omen."
It must have been.
Down 28-24 midway through the third quarter, Beaver Falls not only rebounded to take the lead, but the Tigers also began to gain some separation. During a 16-4 run, senior Micoy Mason made a pair of 3-pointers, senior Zachary Miller knocked down another 3-pointer, junior Elijah Cottrill made an old-fashioned three-point play, and Turner and senior Drew Cook added two points apiece.
Just like that, Beaver Falls had a 40-32 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
From there, Beaver Falls continued to play hard defensively and smart offensively. Beaver Falls took an 11-point lead with 5:02 left, and the Tigers were perfect from the free-throw line after that, converting all six of their attempts.
West Middlesex's Matt Dogan (17 points) and Staunch (13 points) combined to score all but two of the Big Red's 15 fourth-quarter points, but it wasn't enough, as the Tigers held on for the win.
Doing the same against Holy Cross won't be easy. The Crusaders are led by 6-foot-7 senior center Josh Kosin, who averages 19.1 points per game. Kosin scored 27 points in leading Holy Cross to a 53-39 semifinal victory against Camp Hill Trinity.
Turner said that Biega had just a few words for him and his teammates prior to their semifinal win, and it wouldn't be surprising if the same line is uttered Saturday.
"We're 32 minutes away from a championship. Do you want it or don't you?"hsbasketball