By Josh Shreckengost
Armstrong senior forward Cole Brown (10) drops in two of his 11 points in the third quarter of the River Hawks' 65-47 loss to Mars on Wednesday night. Brown had a nice all-around game, but the River Hawks (3-3) were unable to get past the Fightin' Planets (10-1) who came into the contest as the No. 2-ranked team in WPIAL 5A.
Kittanning, Pa. -- The Armstrong boys varsity basketball team knew that it would have an uphill battle against Mars -- the No. 2-ranked team in WPIAL 5A, even with a full lineup -- but the River Hawks were without senior guard Eli Wiles and the Fightin' Planets were red-hot from long range as Mars cruised to its 10th victory of the season, 65-47.
Wiles was recognized prior to the game as the Armstrong program celebrated its seniors, but the tenacious guard sat in his warm-ups on the bench for the duration, ruled out due to a nagging ankle injury which had been recently re-aggravated. Without Wiles manning the backcourt along with Adam Hudock, Mars' speedy collection of guards were able to push the pace and hit repeatedly from beyond the arc to help the Fightin' Planets jump out to a 33-21 lead at halftime and cruise to an 18-point win.
"Without Eli, that takes a big portion of our defense away," Armstrong head coach Brian Kovalovsky said. "It hurt. We're a half-step slower in spots and Eli could probably match the older [Mihali] Sfanos as far as the quickness, but it's what we had to deal with tonight."
Armstrong hung tight with Mars in the opening period and looked to have momentum heading into the second quarter after a nice play call freed up freshman guard Jack Valasek for a jumper with just over five seconds left to bring the River Hawks within a couple of points, 15-13. Mars, however, had the answer as senior guard Anthony Vargo took the inbounds pass, dribbled a couple of times to get across halfcourt and banked in a 30-foot three-pointer at the buzzer to extend the Fightin' Planets lead to five at the end of the first quarter, 18-13. Vargo's buzzer-beater was a gut punch to Armstrong and things only got more difficult from there.
"They didn't leave too many out there tonight," Kovalovsky said. "They're tough to guard and they go hard off the dribble."
Vargo scored all eight of his points in the first quarter and his fellow backcourt mates Tasso Sfanos and Zach Schlegel made life difficult for the River Hawks as they continually pushed the ball up the floor and were expert in knocking down shots from long distance. Schlegel scored a game-high 21 points and Sfanos added 20 while the Fightin' Planets hit ten three-pointers as a team.
"We struggled a little bit on both ends of the floor, but you have to give Mars and Coach [Rob] Carmody credit because they created a lot of that for us," Kovalovsky said. "A couple of times, we didn't have hands down and we didn't rotate. They just develop those guards that can just shoot and shoot and shoot. They played in the 5A championship last year for a reason and a lot of those kids are back. Every time we made a mistake, they made us pay."
The Fightin' Planets came out of the halftime break just as they did in the second quarter and hit a long three as Sfanos got loose for an open look. The Mars lead swelled to 17 points in the third before Armstrong senior forward Cole Brown scored on three straight possessions. Brown had his best offensive game of the season and finished with 11 points, tied with Adam Hudock for second on the team behind Valasek's team-high 16.
"I was really happy for Cole because he just worked and worked and we've been working since Day One on his footwork and he made some finishes around the basket that he hasn't made in his career," Kovalovsky said. "I think by focusing on that, he's becoming a threat offensively and that's going to help us down the line."
While any loss is difficult to take, Kovalovsky found some positives to take away from how his team competed against Mars, not least of which was his team's battle level.
"The biggest thing is, our kids never quit," Kovalovsky said. "They never stopped battling."
Kovalovsky was also effusive in his praise of his team's senior group. Wiles, Hudock, Brown, Dylan Cujas and Jeffrey Jones are Kovalovsky's first group of seniors in his first year on the job at Armstrong and the River Hawks' head coach noted just how special this group is as the Armstrong basketball program tries to establish itself as a contender in 5A.
"They're really special to me," Kovalovsky said. "From the time I was hired and reached out to them, they've been nothing but positive, willing, open and honest. They're helping us change the culture and build a foundation here. They're just a special group of kids. They're great leaders, they're respectful and most importantly, they don't quit."
To watch a complete re-broadcast of Mars' 65-47 win over Armstrong, please click on the link below: