By Josh Shreckengost
The West Shamokin boys varsity basketball team poses with the Heritage Conference championship plaque after a thrilling, 51-46 victory over United on Saturday night.
Rural Valley, Pa. -- Great teams are forged by how they handle adversity and the West Shamokin boys varsity basketball team handled said adversity flawlessly on Saturday night as they held off a gritty United team to capture the Heritage Conference championship, 51-46.
The Lions tied the game at 45-45 with under a minute to play after point guard Johnny Muchesko hit three straight free throws, but the Wolves had an immediate answer.
Senior guard Justin Smulik set a screen and popped out beyond the arc and took a pass from fellow senior Eric Spencer. When Smulik's defender did not close out immediately, the 6-3 lefty pulled up and drained a go-ahead three-pointer to put the Wolves up, 48-45. The big shot sent West Shamokin's sideline into a frenzy.
"That's clutch, man. That's a senior stepping up big in a big moment," West Shamokin head coach Judd McCullough said. "That's incredible. And it wasn't just one shot. It was a couple of dagger-like threes in the second half. In the first half, there was a lid on the basket and obviously we can shoot better. In the excitement of a championship game, sometimes it takes a little bit longer to find your rhythm and Justin with those shots in the second half, it was just big."
Prior to Smulik's dramatics in the final minute -- he also converted a lay-up which put West Shamokin up by four after Jack McCullough expertly broke United's press and hit him with a perfect bounce pass -- the game was a back-and-forth affair which featured several swings in momentum. Each time West Shamokin seemed to be taking control of the game, the Lions fought back.
United trailed by seven points at the break, 21-14, but the Lions seemed to catch a break when West Shamokin's leading scorer Trevor Smulik caught two quick fouls in the first 32 seconds of the period. Smulik was leading all scorers at the time with eight points, but the junior swingman was forced to sit for the next 7:28 seconds. Surprisingly, the Wolves rallied in Smulik's absence and opened up a 10-point lead in the third quarter while fighting off multiple runs by United.
"Then we built a lead and that's surprising because Trevor is our best player," McCullough said. "I think we rallied around that. Give United a lot of credit, it was a game of runs and they battled right back and it was back-and-forth the whole way. Both teams left it out on the court, all the way. It was a perfect championship game, well-fought and I give a lot of credit to United."
While the Smulik brothers combined for 26 points with Trevor recording a game-high 14, the performance of Spencer was also key to West Shamokin's victory. The 5-11 guard played much bigger than his height as he finished with a game-high five blocks and also tied teammate Ezeck Olinger with a team-best eight rebounds to go along with five points and four assists. Spencer also handled the inbounding duties and played nearly mistake-free as he delivered an excellent effort in the win.
"What we talk about is that everybody has a role and we want you to be a star in your role," McCullough said. "On another team, Eric probably is a star, but of all the players on this team, I think he stars in his role better than anyone else. I often joke that he's like my comfort blanket, as a coach. I always feel comfortable when he's on the court. He does a lot of good things to keep things in check, both offensively and defensively. I can't say enough about him."
The Smulik brothers combined for 11 rebounds (Justin six, Trevor five) while senior guard Jack McCullough scored nine points to go along with six rebounds and three assists. Senior point guard Bo Swartz had a nice all-around game with four points, five assists, three rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Olinger had five points and two assists to go along with his eight rebounds. Once again, a total team effort helped to lift West Shamokin to victory, their 20th straight this season.
With the victory, the Wolves secured the No. 1 seed in the District 6-2A bracket and will host No. 8 Homer-Center on Wednesday, March 3 at 7 p.m. The two teams last met on February 10 and West Shamokin handled the Wildcats with ease by a score of 70-33.
Despite taking home the Heritage, McCullough and his players know that it is just the first step on a postseason journey which West Shamokin hopes will run deep into the month of March.
"There have been so many games in such a short amount of time that we really haven't been able to get after it in practice and I think a lot of teams are like that this year because you really have to protect [the team's] legs," McCullough said. "We have a little bit of time to rest up. We keep telling them that we have enough offense that if we really sell out on the defensive side, if we really sell out on the glass, that it's going to be tough to beat us even if we do struggle offensively. I'd rather shoot cold now in the Heritage and barely win and maybe catch fire in Districts and hopefully, that's what we'll do."
To watch a complete re-broadcast of West Shamokin's 51-46 victory over United in the Heritage Conference championship game, please click the link below: