By Matt Popchock
For teams like North Allegheny that have championship aspirations, the play of their guards is quite important.
"Considering we don't have anything but guards, they'd better play a role," head coach Dave DeGregorio said with a chuckle, referring to the imbalance of his roster, which lists all but five players at that position.
Maybe DeGregorio was also smiling because he knows there'll be a changing of the guard when the new Class AAAA boys' basketball rankings are published.
Sparked by the junior guard tandem of Anthony Dallier and J.C. Howard, No. 3 North Allegheny (1-1, 8-2) raced out to an early 18-point advantage before No. 1 Gateway mounted a furious comeback, but a number of key plays down the stretch allowed the Tigers to escape with a 66-64 win over the Gators (2-0, 9-1) in a non-section battle of Quad-A heavyweights at Gateway High School's Furrie Sports Complex Tuesday night.
Dallier registered a team-high 23 points and added seven rebounds, with Howard giving NA 15 points, three assists, and grabbing five boards. Both made contributions to the Tigers' cause during the game's final five minutes, which saw multiple ties, lead changes, and free throw opportunities.
"They really stepped up their defensive intensity, and we were a little slow on offense, so I knew I would have to make some plays for us," Dallier said.
"Sometimes I go through stretches when I come out ready and the defense makes adjustments, and that's when I have to let my teammates get into it," he said of his and Howard's performances. "J.C. played really well, and I think that's what helped us tonight, having another one of us play so well."
The duo ran the show and quieted one half of the gym early on by staking the Tigers to a 15-5 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter. A full timeout by Gateway head coach Mitch Adams couldn't stop the bleeding, as NA ended the opening stanza with a comfortable 23-5 cushion. Dallier and Howard each scored nine points, including three of an eventual five three-pointers by the latter.
Defensively it was a coup for the Tigers to hold junior guard Tyler Scott to a single field goal in that quarter. Scott, who ultimately met his per-game average and led the Gators with 24 points, would get unstuck in the second quarter and help Gateway outscore NA for the period. However, the Tigers continued flocking to the ball well and forcing turnovers despite being physically outmatched, and they continued shooting lights-out too, taking a 40-23 lead to halftime.
Gateway began chipping away at that lead immediately in the second half led by senior forward Devin Cottrell, who scored seven of his 14 points in the third quarter. Barnett Harris added six of his eight and provided steady defensive play off the bench while the Tigers' offense went through a dry spell, and before the gathered masses knew it, NA's lead had been cut to 45-42 with 1:44 left in the third.
"In the first half I thought we got a lot of quality looks, but just didn't get as many in the second half," DeGregorio said. "They're in their court, and we knew they were going to come at us eventually, no doubt."
Indeed, they kept coming in the fourth, trimming the deficit to 50-48 less than two minutes in before an exuberant Tyler Corbett drained his only attempt of the game, a three-pointer right in front of his own bench, to give Gateway its first lead of the night, 51-50, with 5:40 left in regulation.
That seemed to revive North Allegheny, which would trade scoring opportunities with the resurgent Gators, as Anton Constantino, who finished with 13 points and three three-pointers, hit the last of those triples to give NA a 55-53 edge with just over four minutes left. Scott knifed his way through the North Allegheny defense and tied it with an easy layup, then Harris stole the ball and drew an intentional foul while trying to go coast-to-coast, but the Tigers caught a big break when he missed both free throws.
Kevin Cope was slightly more successful at the line, knocking down the front end of a one-and-one to give NA its lead back. Cottrell made one of two on the other side of the floor to make it a 56-56 game with 2:36 to go, at which point Dallier and Howard took charge just as they had in the first half.
Dallier took a baseline pass from Byrum Louco and made a nice move through two defenders for a quick score to give North Allegheny the lead for good. Moments later, Howard grabbed a defensive rebound through a crowd that led to an easy transition bucket for Louco and a 60-56 lead for the visitors with 1:09 left. Scott drew a foul while shooting an errant three-pointer with 14 seconds remaining, and though he cut the lead to two, Gateway could get no closer as he missed his third shot and the Tigers regained possession.
"Our pressure wasn't as good [in the second half], and I thought we didn't move the ball quite as well as we had in the first half," DeGregorio said. "But I thought we had a lot of guys play well...and we boxed out well."
Fittingly, the top-ranked Gators' streak of ten consecutive regular season victories dating back to last year came to an end against the team that ended their '09-'10 campaign in the state playoffs, while North Allegheny extended its own win streak to six. But despite knocking off number one, DeGregorio and his kids are withholding their enthusiasm until they get into the meat of their schedule.
"We've played a lot of good teams early in the season, but it's a non-section game, and Friday we start the section grind, so I don't know what you take from it," the coach shrugged.
"That's all it is, a non-section win, so it doesn't really help us as much," Dallier agreed. "But it is a great win."
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