By Andy Close
CLARION — Leading 40-32 late in the fourth quarter, Cameron County’s Nate Sestina slipped behind the Venango Catholic defense on an inbound play and Keith Spehalski hit him with a perfect pass. Sestina did the rest, throwing down a thunderous dunk with 29 seconds left that put an exclamation point on Cameron County’s District 9 Class A semifinal win and first trip to the finals since 1995.
With the 44-32 victory at Clarion University’s Tippin Gym, the Red Raiders now seek their first district championship since 1973.
“Ever since the beginning of the season, we wanted to get here as a team.” Sestina said. “It’s a wonderful feeling, especially playing in a gym like this.”
Sestina didn’t have his best offensive game, scoring 11 points on just 5-of-18 shooting, but he did pull down 21 rebounds, while Spehalski came up clutch for the Red Raiders (23-2).
Spehalski scored eight points in the fourth quarter, including 5-of-6 from the free throw line in the final 1:49.
His three-pointer with 6:25 to go extended the Cameron County lead to 32-25 and VC wouldn’t get closer than five the rest of the way. It was part of a 15-point effort for the senior guard, who came up with a number of clutch plays down the stretch.
“Keith is a leader,” Songer said. “He’s the most composed player and he want the ball in situations like that when the game is on the line.”
Initially, the game was billed as a matchup between the two best big men in District 9 — Sestina and Venango Catholic’s Devin Zagar.
Sestina and the rest of his teammates did a number on the 6-11 Zagar, as he was held to just one point, or 17 below his team-leading 18 points per game.
“Nate did a tremendous job on him,” Songer said. “I thought we did a very good job on him as a whole. I thought our defense was excellent, especially in the fourth quarter.
After working out some early game jitters, Cameron County looked like they might run the Vikings (16-8) out of the gym.
Trailing 5-2, the Red Raiders went on a 15-2 run in the final 2:42 of the first quarter to take a 17-7 lead, keyed by 3’s from Michael Slusarick and James Guisto.
“I thought we had some nerves early,” Songer said. “This was our first time in an atmosphere like this, at Tippin Gymnasium and we missed some shots and had a few turnovers. I thought as we got going, we played better.”
Venango Catholic didn’t go away, as three-pointers by Brady Kingston and Scott Toy cut the deficit to three before a layup by Sestina and a free throw by Trae Smith to close the half made it 21-15.
It was VC’s defense that allowed them to close the gap, as they held Cameron to just four second-quarter points.
“I think it was certainly a different environment for us,” said Venango Catholic coach Ed McIntyre. “I thought our defense was good in the second quarter to hold them to just four points.”
Luke Plumer tied the game 23-23 with 4:36 to go in the third quarter, but Cameron responded with a pivotal 9-0 run that extended through the third and into the fourth, capped by Spehalski’s triple.
Neither team shot the ball well — Cameron County 25 percent and Venango Catholic 28 percent, but Songer and the Red Raiders know what playoff basketball is all about.
“Survive and advance,” he said. “It wasn’t the prettiest of games, but I’m just so proud of these kids. I’m so happy for them and for our fans. We’re excited to play in the District 9 finals on Saturday.”
It was also about the rebounding, as the Red Raiders held a 49-30 edge on the boards, led by Sestina’s 21 and seven each from Slusarick and Dominic Nellis.
“I thought we had some good looks, some good opportunities, that we didn’t take advantage of,” McIntyre said.
Cameron County will meet Clarion-Limestone, a 49-40 overtime winner over top-seed Elk County Catholic in the other semifinal.
No matter who wins, they will be ending a long drought. While Cameron County’s last District 9 title came in 1973, it’s been even longer — 1961, since C-L hoisted the trophy.
“We’re going to enjoy this one tonight and get back to work tomorrow,” Songer said. “It’s surreal. This is just so great for the kids and so great for the community.”
NOTES: Sestina has now posted double-doubles in 24 of 25 games this season … Zagar led Venango Catholic with 11 rebounds … Nellis dished out a team-high four assists for Cameron County … Sestina also had four blocks, while Zagar finished with five
Cameron County 44, Venango Catholic 32
Venango Catholic 7 10 6 9 — 32
Cameron County 17 4 8 15 — 44
VENANGO CATHOLIC (32)
Scott Toy 6-13 0-1 13, Luke Plumer 3-7 2-3 9, Nathan Dudzic 0-3 0-0 0, Devin Zagar 0-8 1-2 1, Brady Kingston 4-10 0-0 9, Jacob Hargenrader 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 13-45 3-6 32
CAMERON COUNTY (44)
James Guisto 1-11 2-2 5, Trae Smith 3-7 2-4 8, Michael Sulsarick 1-4 0-0 3, Keith Spehalski 3-9 8-10-15, Nate Sestina 5-18 1-3 11, Vinny Olivett 0-1 0-0 0, Adam Shaffer 0-0 0-0 0, Dominic Nellis 1-2 0-0 2, Totals 14-55 13-19 44
Three-point FGs: Venango Catholic (3) — Toy, Plumer, Kingston; Cameron County (3) — Guisto, Slusarick, Spehalski