Mar. 21—HERMITAGE — Someone forgot to tell Portage High boys' basketball team it was the underdog coming into its PIAA Class 2A quarterfinal-round contest with Kennedy Catholic.
Perhaps that was precisely Portage's point: The Mustangs' mind-set was to forego the fear factor and focus on forging forward, and that's exactly how Portage proceeded.
The Mustangs manufactured 25 fourth-period points and posted a 65-57 win in Saturday's matinee, thereby earning a statewide Final Four berth.
"Absolutely not," 21st-year Portage Head Coach Travis Kargo confided regarding the overachieving underdog theory. "We came down here expecting to win, expecting to compete. We know (the Golden Eagles) are very good; we feel we're very good. We played a very good schedule all year, got us prepared ... "
Kennedy Catholic has captured 10 commonwealth crowns during the proud program's annals. But the banners blowing in the spring breeze wafting through the gym did not intimidate Kargo & Co.
"We knew comin' in we could play with them. We weren't sure if they thought we could play with them, but we knew we could play with them," Kargo emphasized.
"It happens when you talk about the history of basketball. You look at the banners in here. We don't have that," Kargo continued. "But what we have is a group of kids that believe in each other, fight for each other, and accept coaching and accept responsibility — rules — and we knew that would travel well with us."
"They're an experienced bunch. They have a goal that they want to reach. They shouldn't have been intimidated by the banners," began Kennedy Catholic interim Coach Ryan Anderton. "They practiced here (Friday) night, so they got a little bit of an awareness with the court. They know the history here, (but) they wanted it, they just wanted it.
"They play defense like us — they get after it and make it difficult, continued Anderton, who admitted, "We got careless with the ball a little bit, but I think they had a big part of doing that. ... When we were takin' care of the ball we just weren't gettin' enough buckets — and obviously stops at the same time — to make a run and kind've turn their momentum away."
Kaden Claar, Kargo's nephew, notched a game-high 24 points — 10 during the 4th frame. He provided Portage's exclamation point with approximately a half-minute remaining. Securing a defensive rebound, Claar coasted to a court-length lay-in with his left hand. That extended the Mustangs' margin to an insurmountable 62-52.
"We come into every game confident. You come into a game scared, you're not gonna win," claimed Claar, who also snared 7 rebounds. "We came in positive, ready to play, and we came out and got the win.
"We've always played together, so we're just comfortable around each other, so that obviously boosts our confidence a little bit. And yeah ... it's just a great win," Claar continued.
There were 7 deadlocks and 10 lead changes. The teams were tied at 42 with 5:48 remaining when Claar connected on a 3-point shot. Portage never trailed again.
The District 6 champion Mustangs (21-2) led 18-11 at the quarter, 27-26 by the break, and 40-37 through 3 periods.
Complementing Claar during the decisive final frame were Koby Kargo — who connected on a left-wing triple (his only bucket) with 4:12 left for a 50-45 Portage edge — and Preston Rainey and Demetri Miller, who mustered 4 markers apiece for the Mustangs.
Miller made 6 of 9 floor shots en route to 13 markers (plus 7 rebounds), while Rainey rifled in a dozen despite playing the last 7:46 with 4 personal fouls. Also, Mason Kargo and Andrew Miko dished out 4 and 3 dimes, respectively, helping Portage post 49 percent shooting from the field (26 of 53). Also, Gavin Gouse garnered 8 points as part of Coach Kargo's 8-player rotation.
Kennedy Catholic (22-3) captured the program's 28th District 10 title. But during the 4th frame senior standout Sky'Ler Thomas did not score, missing the front end of a pair of 1-and-1 bonus free-throw opportunities. He was DQ'd on personal fouls with 2:54 remaining and Portage leading, 54-47. He ended with 8 points.
"Sky'Ler — he's a 'warrior,'" Anderton praised. "Played through injuries all year, played a hundred percent — practice, games — and just battled. Did everything we asked of him on the court, to be a leader. So whomever's here is gonna miss him tremendously. But he's gonna make a good college basketball player for some school, too."
KC committed 9 first-quarter miscues and the Golden Eagles ended with 19 while connecting on only 23 of 60 field-goal attempts (38.4%), while converting just 9 of 17 free throws (52.9%).
"I wouldn't call it so much 'pressure,' but the other team, they played really hard, played together. They were very well coached, they were prepared," Anderton assessed. "I don't know if we came out with the intensity that we needed to. I thought we were ready; I thought they were locked in and ready to go. But that team's good. I don't want to say we overlooked them. But they were good, they were good."
Keying KC were Elijah Harden and DaJaun Young, with 18 points apiece. Thomas took down a game-high 12 rebounds, Young yanked 10 to complete a double-double, and Harden handed out 4 helpers. Anderton, asked if he would consider returning next season as full-time KC head coach, was noncommittal, saying he needed some time.
"We've got four seniors, we've got some juniors, we've got two sophomores playin' a ton of minutes. These kids have played so much basketball, from kindergarten up ... playin' the travel circuit. They just don't feel any situation's too big for them," Coach Kargo summarized.
Kargo claimed this was his biggest coaching win. "We've made it to the Sweet Sixteen — last year we lost to (Our Lady of the Sacred Heart); we made it five years ago — we lost to Monessen.
"This is our first trip to the Elite Eight, now it's our first trip to the Final Four. I know we're gonna go down fightin.' We're not gonna back down, we're gonna keep comin.' I don't know where that will lead us, but I know one thing: These kids, I'll take them any day in a game. They're competitors, they play with heart, with passion. It's incredible," Kargo concluded.
PIAA CLASS 2A QUARTERFINALS
PORTAGE 18 9 13 25 65
KENNEDY 11 15 11 20 57
PORTAGE — Rainey 4-4-6-12, K.Kargo 1-0-0-3, Zatek 2-0-0-4, Claar 10-1-3-24, Miller 6-1-2-13, M.Kargo 0-1-2-1, Miko 0-0-0-0, Gouse 3-0-0-8. 3-pt. goals: Claar 3, Gouse 2, K.Kargo 1. Totals: 26-7-13-65.
KENNEDY CATHOLIC — Thomas 4-0-2-8, Magestro 1-1-2-3, Owens 2-1-2-5, Harden 7-3-4-18, Young 7-4-7-18, Campbell 1-0-0-3, Ondo 1-0-0-2, Wade 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goals: Campbell 1, Harden 1. Totals: 23-9-17-57.