Rodney Gallagher didn’t think his long jump shot from the baseline was going in when he released it.
“I thought it was going to be short, I guess because I was short-arming a lot of my shots in the third quarter, when I didn’t score,” said Laurel Highlands’ star sophomore in recalling the final seconds of Friday night’s game at Thomas Jefferson.
As it turned out, Gallagher had just the right touch.
His clutch shot hit nothing but net with one second left to break a 56-56 tie and give the Mustangs a 58-56 victory and their first section championship since 2013.
“When it went through, I was like, wow,” Gallagher said. “I was proud of myself.”
LH coach Rick Hauger sounded pretty proud of his point guard as well.
“Rodney certainly has a knack for making big shots and big plays,” Hauger said.
Laurel Highlands’ improved to 10-3 overall and 8-0 in Section 1-AAAAA to clinch sole possession of first place with its eighth straight win.
“That’s another huge accomplishment for our school and Coach Hauger,” Gallagher said. “I know he’s happy because it’s been awhile. Just being part of our success and his success feels good.”
Hauger was happier for his players than himself for earning a section plaque.
“Winning a section title is certainly a goal that the team had,” Hauger said. “I’m happy for the guys. They really earned it tonight.”
The Jaguars fell to 15-4 overall and 5-3 in the section.
Gallagher finished with a game-high 22 points, including three 3-pointers, and Brandon Davis also sank a trio of 3-pointers in scoring 16 points.
Keondre DeShields followed with nine points, Jayden Pratt had seven points and Nick Egnot chipped in with the other four points.
A roller-coaster fourth quarter began with Thomas Jefferson holding a 48-43 lead. The Mustangs gradually overtook the hosts and with a 13-3 run.
DeShields made two free throws at the start of the quarter and Gallagher hit a driving shot to cut the gap to one point.
Jaguars freshman Evan Berger put the lead up to four with a 3-pointer.
Laurel Highlands came right back with a free throw by Pratt, a steal and layup by Davis and a basket by Pratt off a crisp pass by Tarrance Thomas-Brown for a 52-51 lead with 4:05 left.
Gallagher hit a pair of free throws with 1:28 remaining and Davis did the same 22 seconds later to put the Mustangs’ advantage at 56-51.
Thomas Jefferson’s Aidan Kelly scored with 54 seconds left to make it 56-53. After LH missed a short shot off a long inbound pass from Gallagher, the Jaguars’ Jake Pugh scored while being fouled with 37 seconds left. Pugh made the free throw to complete the three-point play to tie the game and set the state for Gallagher.
Laurel Highlands took the clock down to 14 seconds when Hauger called a timeout.
“We were going to space some people out, set a screen for Rodney and let him make a decision,” Hauger said. “Take it to the basket, kick it (back out to a teammate) or take a shot. He started to go to the basket and the kid (Berger) played good defense on him.
“But Rodney stepped back and nailed the shot.”
Caleb Palumbo inbounded to Gallagher who kept the ball along the right side and let fly from just inside the 3-point line.
“We did a little slipping screen to try to get me or Keondre open but I saw he wasn’t open so I tried to drive and get to the hoop but he cut off the baseline,” Gallagher said. “So I just gathered myself, did a little hesitation move to create space and I got off the shot.”
One second remained after Gallagher’s shot went through the basket but Pugh’s long inbound pass was tipped by TJ’s Ian Hansen and then Pratt before going out of bounds to end the game.
The Mustangs got contributions across the board.
“Brandon Davis I thought played well,” Hauger said. “Nick Egnot was battling their big guy, giving away 20 or 30 pounds and three or four inches and held his own in there. Keondre DeShields matched up against a bigger guy also. He did a nice job on the boards and came up with some big baskets for us.
“Jayden Pratt and Tarrance Thomas-Brown gave us some good minutes and some good defense off the bench.
“It was a team effort, and Rod spearheaded it.”
Laurel Highlands led 18-17 after one quarter and 35-28 at halftime. Thomas Jefferson held Gallagher scoreless in the third quarter and out-scored LH 20-8 to take a five-point lead into the fourth.
The Jaguars put three players in double figures led by Berger, who made four 3-pointers in scoring 14 points. Ethan Dunsey followed with 11 points and Kelly contributed 10 points with eight coming in TJ’s big third quarter.
Gallagher felt the battle with Thomas Jefferson was a good tune-up for the upcoming playoffs.
“Games like this are perfect for us,” Gallagher said. “We’re a young team and we’re still gelling together and we’ve got all the confidence in the world right now.”
Hauger didn’t want to speculate on where Laurel Highlands might be seeded when the WPIAL releases its playoff pairings this week.
“Whatever they decide we deserve, that’s what we’ll take,” Hauger said. “And we’ll try to work from there.”