East Xtra: Latrobe gives No. 1 team a challenge

Craig Meyer's high school basketball notebook

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A game pitting a 16 seed against a one seed -- be it in the NCAA tournament or the WPIAL playoffs -- is generally a formality. While there's a reasonable expectation that other first-round games have the potential to be close, this one is almost universally a blowout, a mismatch between a prohibitive favorite and a team that's frankly happy to have just gotten that far.

Given those facts, the history of those games is littered with routs, creating the reasonable expectation that it's going to be that way most every year.

But last Saturday, Greater Latrobe turned that conventional wisdom on its head -- even if it was only for just one half.

In a WPIAL Class AAAA first-round game against No. 1 New Castle, the No. 16 seed Wildcats hung tough for nearly the first 20 minutes of the game -- much longer than many thought -- in what turned out to be an 85-66 loss at North Allegheny. Latrobe led by two points at the end of the first quarter and was down only two points at 41-39 at halftime.

Much of the astonishment surrounding the competitiveness of the game wasn't because the Wildcats are perceived as a bad team (they were 12-9 at the time). Rather, it was because of just how dominant the Red Hurricanes had been throughout the season.

After all, this was the same squad that was 22-0, was defeating opponents by an average of nearly 25 points per game and represented a program that has won 68 consecutive regular-season games.

As the second half began, things quickly reverted to the norm, as New Castle outscored Latrobe in the third quarter, 27-12, to put the game's final result out of doubt.

The matchup was not an unfamiliar one for Latrobe, as it had lost to New Castle in the same 1-16 game in 2013. Though it didn't have quite the same level of early suspense, the score was just two points different, as the Wildcats lost that one, 85-64.

Surprisingly, Latrobe's loss was just the third-closest Class AAAA playoff game between a No. 1 and 16 seed since the 2008-09 season. In 2012, top-ranked Shaler only defeated McKeesport, 50-47, while Mt. Lebanon beat Shaler by just two points in a low-scoring, 33-31 win in 2008.

Though their season is over, the Wildcats' competitive loss was not the only thing for them to be encouraged about. The team's two leading scorers in the New Castle game -- Matt Cullen (16 points) and Sean Graytok (15) -- are a junior and sophomore, respectively. Cullen led the team in scoring this season at 14.2 points per game. Only one of the team's players, P.J. Self, was a senior, meaning virtually the entire roster returns next season.

Burrell just shy of history

Sneaking into the playoffs with a 6-15 record, the Burrell boys basketball team saw its season come to an end with a 68-52 loss to Washington last Saturday.

Finishing the season at 6-16, the Buccaneers had the second-worst record of any WPIAL playoff team at the Class AA level or higher since at least the 1985-86 season. The only team with a worse mark? That would be Keystone Oaks this season, which finished 5-17.

Another tough exit for Plum

It's hard to argue against the fact that the past five years have been strong for the girls basketball program at Plum. In each of those five seasons, the Mustangs made the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs (with winning records in four of those seasons) and amassed a 66-48 record in that span.

Despite all of that success, however, there was always one thing missing -- a playoff victory. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, it was a trend that continued last Friday as they fell to Penn-Trafford, 46-43, in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.

The loss marked the fifth-consecutive season that Plum came up short in the first round of the playoffs. In fact, for all their recent success, the Mustangs have not won a playoff game since 2002.

Weekly watch

Franklin Regional vs. Hampton, Saturday, site and time TBD -- Few teams in the East Xtra coverage area have been as formidable over the past few weeks as the Panthers, who have won seven in a row, including a 70-59 victory against Seneca Valley last Saturday in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs. That streak will face something of a litmus test against the 20-3 Talbots, the No. 3 Class AAAA team in the Post-Gazette's rankings.

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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