Penn Cambria boys top Franklin, reach program's first PIAA semifinal
Mar. 19—KITTANNING, Pa. — The 2022-23 Penn Cambria boys basketball team can officially classify itself as one of the best squads to ever compete while wearing a Panthers uniform.
A late run sparked by senior forward Garrett Harrold helped Penn Cambria defeat District 10 champion Franklin 61-53 at Armstrong High School, giving the Panthers their first-ever appearance in the PIAA semifinals.
No other athletic team in Penn Cambria's history had advanced past the quarterfinals of the state playoffs prior to Saturday's victory, as the Panthers surpassed their last appearance in the same round 56 years ago.
"Right now, we're just so overwhelmed with emotion," Penn Cambria coach Jim Ronan said. "It's been a dream of a lifetime to be the only team in school history, as far as any sport goes, to get here. We always talk about legacy with this group. They never give in to anything."
The Panthers, who have now been victorious in six straight games since their loss to Central in the LHAC championship, will meet District 7 champion Deer Lakes (20-8) in the semifinals on Tuesday.
This will be the second year in a row Penn Cambria has faced Deer Lakes in the PIAA playoffs. The Panthers knocked off the Lancers 66-63 in last season's opening round.
"It's definitely great to be a part of this team and this experience," Panthers senior Vinny Chirdon said, "but our mentality is that we're not finished yet. We don't want to stop at the final four. We want to go all the way. When you have players like we have, especially 'G' (Harrold), who can come through in the clutch like today, big things can happen."
Penn Cambria entered the fourth quarter leading 44-35.
Franklin came onto the floor in the final frame and applied immediate full- and half-court pressure, resulting in the Knights outscoring the Panthers 14-5 over the first six minutes of the fourth to tie the game at 49.
Harrold then put Penn Cambria ahead for good with a 3-pointer at the top of the key with 2:01 remaining. The Duquesne football signee kept the Panthers in front by going 6-for-6 at the free-throw line after his bucket.
Harrold scored 11 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth, with nine coming over the final two minutes.
"My teammates just wanted me to have the ball, and I can't tell you how much that trust means to me," Harrold said. "I have to do my job when the going gets tough. They want to put the ball in my hands, so I have to deliver. I'm glad I was able to pull it off for these guys."
Harrold finished the game 12 of 12 at the free throw line. Penn Cambria as a team went 19-for-22.
Clutch performances at the charity stripe proved to be key for the Panthers (24-5), who fell into a funk consisting of four turnovers and two missed shots over a string of six possessions during Franklin's fourth-quarter run.
"Franklin threw some haymakers at us," Ronan said. "We were able to regroup from it. We came together and said, 'we're not losing this game.' People always ask how quick runs like that happen in basketball. It just happens. If you watch March Madness, that crap happens every day."
While attempting to work around Franklin's height advantage inside, Penn Cambria was able to jump in front with early success from three-point territory.
All four of the Panthers' first-quarter field goals were 3-pointers, as Penn Cambria knocked down eight of its 10 shots from long range in the first half.
Franklin cut an eight-point deficit down to two, but back-to-back threes by Harrold and Luke Shuagis gave the Panthers a 33-27 lead at the break.
"We were just playing our game," said Chirdon, who totaled 16 points with three 3-pointers. "The first half, shots were falling. We had to make adjustments in the second half for different things they were throwing at us. We've been able to change on the fly all season, so it was second nature."
The Knights trailed by as many as 11 in the third quarter before outscoring the Panthers 16-5 over an 8-minute stretch spanning into the fourth.
"The last three or four games, we've been in some battles," Harrold said. "That's all this team does is battle. We're just a couple guys from Cresson, Pa., and we live for moments like this."