By Matthew peaslee
They came in wearing shirts that read, “Believe The Hype,” but the Bristol Panther faithful stared into the painted faces and upset-minded crazies of the McDonald Blue Devils.
With a berth in the Division IV district final and an undefeated season on the line, Bristol let McDonald run away in the fourth quarter falling, 83-74.
The Blue Devils (21-4) face Windham on Friday at Harding. The Bombers beat Maplewood, 67-45, in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
“This was by far the best game I’ve ever played in,” said sophomore guard Anthony Pugh “I’m hoping Friday’s even better.”
Pugh stole an errant pass and took it for a layup to extended McDonald’s lead to seven in the second quarter. Later, he knocked down a 3-pointer with 5:15 left in regulation to put the Devils up 62-57 halting a Bristol (24-1) run. Then, his five free throws in the final two minutes clinched it.
“When Anthony was at the free-throw line, I looked up and our student section chanted ‘You wanted us,’ ” said McDonald center Kenny Greaver. “There were 17.7 seconds left, we were up 10 and I knew we won it.”
In 2011, the Blue Devils beat Richmond Heights, 54-52, in a regional semifinal to end its undefeated season.
McDonald coach Jeff Rasile, a teacher in the Champion School District, has been hearing about this potential matchup for weeks.
“The last three weeks, I’ve heard from people up that way that they wanted us,” he said. “I want whoever we want to play. I knew we had some advantages on them and we ultimately got those advantages tonight.
“I haven’t slept in three days. When we feel like we get called out, it brings out my competitive spirit.”
A Brandon Lee layup at the 7:55 mark of the third quarter gave Bristol its first lead at 35-33. There were seven lead changes in the final two minutes of third quarter and the beginning of the fourth.
Pugh finished with 19 points, three steals and three assists.
“The kid’s a basketball junkie,” Rasile said.
Greaver had a triple-double with 21 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocks.
“He’s four or five inches bigger than anyone they had,” Rasile said.
Also for McDonald, Matt Seitz had 16 points, Stephan Politano had scored 13 and Christian Rusinowski added 12.
“This team is real special,” Pugh said. “Everybody gets their points when we win.”
Lee led the Panthers with 29 points and eight rebounds, while Chad Oliver had 16.
“I told these guys, 24 wins, I don’t care who you’re playing — it’s amazing,” said Bristol coach Craig Giesy. “To be able to win night after night, obviously we don’t want to lose like this.”
Tournament officials estimated the standing room-only crowd at more than 2,000 fans at the Harding High gymnasium. Giesy said Bristol fans purchased at least 600 tickets in advance.
“This team and those fans brought Bristol back to where it was in the 1990s and 2000s,” he said.
Maplewood coach Nathan Kish admitted his team was fazed early by the crowd and an early 11-0 deficit.
“In a game like this, you have to match the other team’s confidence,” he said. “Those jitters and not being the most confident team on the floor hurt us.”
Kevin Jones had 14 points for the Rockets (17-7) and Ethan Obradovich had 11. Matt Knight led Windham (22-2) with 17 points and Stephen Kacenski had 15. The Bombers shot 30 percent in their last game.
“We always shoot well and our guards did a good job penetrating so a lot of our shots were open,” said Windham coach Marty Hill, who is in his 38th year of coaching. “It’s always easier to shoot when you’re ahead.”