WPIAL champ Central Valley shakes off early struggles, pushes through for win

Central Valley coach Brandon Ambrose had heard about this WPIAL championship hangover stuff. He thought about it and talked to coaching comrades about it.

Then, Ambrose experienced it, but for only a half.

Central Valley was sluggish and did some uncharacteristic things in the first two quarters of its PIAA Class AAA first-round game Friday night. But the WPIAL champion Warriors shook off the cobwebs in the second half and went on to defeat Mars, 67-56, at Moon.

The win put Central Valley into the second round for the first time in the school's four-year history. The Warriors will play Thomas Jefferson, a 72-66 winner against Erie East in another first-round game. It is a rematch of a WPIAL semifinal won by Central Valley in overtime.

Central Valley (23-3) got past Mars in a game that wasn't exactly aesthetically pleasing with 51 fouls called.

"I had talked to some coaching friends who had won WPIAL championships like Doug Biega [of Beaver Falls] and Josh Bears [of West Allegheny], and they told me to get ready and be on the kids because they are going to be so-called hung over after that championship," Ambrose said. "I did not think we lacked energy in this game, but I think we lacked focus. We did some uncharacteristic things defensively, like reaching a lot. We double-teamed the ball in situations where it was not called to double-team."

But thanks to a three-minute spurt to start the second half, things ended up OK for Central Valley. Mars (15-10), trying to win a PIAA playoff game for the first time in school history, led much of the first quarter. The Planets took a 27-24 lead with 2:44 left in the first half on Owen Nearhoof's 3-pointer. But Central Valley scored the final five points of the half to take a 29-27 edge into the break.

Central Valley went on a 12-2 run in the first three minutes of the second quarter, and John George's 3-pointer put the Warriors ahead, 41-29. Those final few minutes of the first half and the first few of the second were the difference in the game, as the Warriors outscored Mars, 17-2.

"The second half was much better," Ambrose said. "We got them turned over a number of times in the second half and got hot in the third quarter."

Matt Kline, a 6-foot-8 senior center, helped fuel the third-quarter charge with six of his 17 points. Kline had only two points in the first half.

"There was no yelling at halftime," Ambrose said. "We just said, 'Matt are you there?' He said, 'I'm good,' and we just said, 'OK, just checking.' "

Senior guard Mike Sims led Central Valley with 17 points.

Nearhoof, a senior guard and 1,000-point scorer in his career, led Mars with 25 points.

"I'm really going to miss that kid," Mars coach Rob Carmody said of Nearhoof, who also was a three-year starter at quarterback. "He's done so much for our school."

Sophomore forward John Castello added 14 points.

"That first state playoff game is always tough," Carmody said. "But I think, quite honestly, a lot of the credit for how ugly we played goes to Central Valley."

For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh. First Published March 7, 2014 10:36 PM

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