You could say Laurel Highlands was in the zone on Saturday afternoon.
The Mustangs weren't particularly zoned in shooting-wise on offense, but their 2-3 zone defense helped turn the momentum against Penn Hills in a WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinal boys basketball battle.
Rodney Gallagher scored a game-high 16 points and Jayden Pratt provided a big spark off the bench as Laurel Highlands rallied from an early 11-point deficit to defeat the sixth-seeded Indians, 48-41, at Harold "Horse" Taylor Memorial Gymnasium.
"Our guys played some impressive defense today," LH coach Rick Hauger said. "That's a very good team, very athletic, and I thought our guys didn't give them many easy ones."
The third-seeded Mustangs (14-3) advance to the semifinals for the second year in a row and will play at second-seeded New Castle on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Penn Hills (13-5) dominated early on as Laurel Highlands struggled to make shots from the field and the foul line. The Mustangs missed five of their first six free throws and found themselves down 11-1. Gallagher hit a driving shot for LH's first field goal with 1:33 left in the first quarter but drew his second foul soon after.
Eddie Daniels then hit a 3-pointer and the Indians were rolling, up 14-3.
"When you start out like that you can get shaken a little bit," Hauger said. "But to our kids' credit they hung in there and they battled."
"I knew we all just had to calm down," Gallagher said.
Laurel Highlands answered as Pratt sank a baseline jumper and Gallagher followed with two baskets in a 16-second span to make it 14-9 after one period.
"I just want to get us into a good rhythm when I get out there," said Pratt who finished with 12 points.
The Mustangs really got into the beat when Hauger switched his team from a man-to-man defense to a tenacious zone at the start of the second quarter.
Unable to penetrate, Penn Hills was forced to let fly from the outside with little success as the tempo of the game slowed considerably.
Brandon Davis made a 3-pointer to pull the Mustangs within two early in the second quarter and Wes Kropp countered with a basket in close for the Indians to make it 16-12.
Two free throws by Pratt and one by Gallagher whittled the gap to one and Gallagher's driving double-pump layup with 2:06 left gave Laurel Highlands its first lead, 17-16.
The Mustangs would never trail again.
Gallagher added a pair of free throws to make it 19-16 with 45 seconds left and Penn Hills missed the final three shots of the half.
"Give credit to Laurel Highlands and their coaching staff for making the proper adjustments," Penn Hills coach Chris Giles said.
"This is just a hard place to play at. The fans that were here were rocking. It's a loud gym. In a playoff atmosphere, a place like this, you've got to be able to make a shot. You're not going to always be able to get layup after layup. You've got to put the ball through the basket."
The Mustangs broke out of the gate quickly in the third quarter to extend their advantage. A basket by Keondre DeShields, a 3-pointer by Davis after a steal by Nick Egnot and a free throw by Egnot gave Laurel Highlands its biggest lead, 25-16.
When the Indians' Deondre Mitchell made two free throws with 4:52 left in the quarter it ended a 22-2 run by the Mustangs that began late in the opening frame.
Laurel Highlands' defense allowed just two points in a span of 12:19 as the Indians rarely got second shots.
"That was big," Hauger pointed out. "I thought Jayden, Keondre and Nick, in particular, did a really great job rebounding when we were in that zone. Rodney and Brandon were helping out on that, too."
"The zone definitely helped us," Gallagher said. "We played great in the 2-3. Everybody stepped up for us on defense."
The Indians weren't done yet.
Penn Hills' Daemar Kelly scored off a turnover and, after a long 3-pointer by Gallagher, Deondre Mitchell made a jump shot and George Mitchell hit a 3-pointer to get the visitors within three.
Two foul shots by Davis and basket by DeShields pushed the gap up to seven until the Indians' Jaden Dugger's bucket in the final seconds made it 32-27 after three quarters.
Penn Hills opened the fourth quarter with a 9-6 run, capped by Kelly's steal and dunk with 3:41 left, and had a chance to pull even but Kropp's short jump shot rolled in and out.
Pratt, who scored the Mustangs' first eight points of the quarter, put in an offensive rebound to give LH a four-point lead, then stole an inbound pass that led to a Davis-to-Gallagher layup and a 42-36 advantage with 2:34 left.
Deondre Mitchell's layup was followed by a Laurel Highlands turnover but Daniels missed from in close, Gallagher gathered up the loose ball and fed Caleb Palumbo with a perfect long pass for a layup to make it 44-38.
Pratt then blocked a shot by Daniels with Davis grabbing the ball and dribbling up court before being fouled with 1:19 left.
"To me, Jayden was the difference," Hauger said. "He was finishing on offense and rebounding and blocking shots on defense.
"Jayden did a terrific job."
Davis hit both free throws to make it an eight-point game.
Laurel Highlands missed three straight foul shots as the Indians pulled within 46-41 with 7.4 seconds remaining, but it was too little too late.
Davis added two more free throws with 3.4 seconds left to set the final score.
Davis wound up with 13 points, including two 3-pointers and a seven-for-10 showing at the foul line. The rest of the Mustangs combined to convert just six of 15 free throws.
"Our foul shooting was far below our standard," Hauger said. "Hopefully, we're going to get that rectified by time we're going up to New Castle."
Deondre Mitchell led Penn Hills with 14 points. Daniels scored 10 points but had only one after the first quarter.
Laurel Highlands also defeated the Indians in the quarterfinals last season, 62-60, on its way to winning its second WPIAL championship.
"We're just trying to do again what we did last year for our city," Pratt said.
"There are four teams left," Hauger added. "I'm glad we're one of them."