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Battle-tested Ironmen face Carver E&S

Mar. 12—Those who watched Danville's state playoff game Friday would probably agree the Ironmen won it in the third quarter when they shot 71% and turned a four-point lead into a 12-point cushion.

However, it's likely they won it earlier than that. Much earlier.

Perhaps a month or more.

Danville played 10 of its 28 games to date against six state-qualifying teams, including two (Whitehall and Loyalsock) which also advanced to the state second round. In fact, six of the Ironmen's last seven games were against teams that played PIAA tournament games last week — and they went 6-1 in that stretch.

"It's always nice being battle-tested. It's nice playing (that schedule) to get ready for this," Danville senior Carter Heath said after Friday's 63-50 win over Octorara. "Octorara's a really good team, and they were a good test. They had us in the first half, but we kinda knew if we stayed together and played our game we were going to come out with the W."

The Ironmen opened the season with a loss to Whitehall in the Journey Bank Tip-Off Tournament. They also faced Class 4A state qualifier Shamokin and 3A qualifier Southern Columbia before the turn of the year.

Thing really picked up in late January, though, when Danville met Lewisburg (4A qualifer), Loyalsock (3A), Williamsport and Selinsgrove (5A) in a span of six games over two-plus weeks. They beat Lewisburg and Selinsgrove by double digits, and lost to Loyalsock and Williamsport by a total of three points.

They've lost only one other game since the first week of January — the Heartland Athletic Conference Tournament final to Loyalsock, 52-49. They beat Shamokin, the No. 1 seed in District 4 Class 4A two times in just more than two weeks (HAC Tournament semifinal and district championship game) ahead of Friday's win, their first in the state playoffs since 2021.

"It's always nice to have one more time on your home court," Heath said. "After playing Athens (in the district quarters), I thought, Well, that may be the last time I ever play with a Danville jersey on that court."

Next up for Danville (21-7) is District 12 runner-up Carver School of Engineering & Science (20-6) in the Class 4A second round 6 p.m. today at Catasauqua H.S. The Engineers averaged 55.8 points per game during the regular season, led by sophomore guard Fareed Brown's 15.4 clip. Four other players score between 7-10 points per game on average for Carver.

During that late-season gauntlet of state playoff qualifiers, the Ironmen got a lot of exposure to high-profile scorers, including Loyalsock's Jamaire Harden, Selinsgrove's Ries Naugle and Octorara's Zach Kirk. A 6-foot senior slasher, Kirk started Friday's game with six of the Braves' 12 first-quarter points. He had nine points at the half on 3-of-6 shooting, almost exclusively on drives the basket.

"We knew we had to help with (Kirk) because he's a great player, and we knew if he drove downhill we had to step off someone and help," said Danville junior center Daniel Walker. "That never changed throughout the game. We never took him for granted."

Ironmen coach Gary Grozier made a halftime adjustment, putting 6-3 senior forward Hayden Winn onto Kirk in their man-to-man. Kirk, a 1,500-point scorer, was 1-for-4 in the third quarter and 1-for-7 before making his second basket of the half. By that time, Danville was firmly in control at 51-39.

"When we switched Hayden in the second half on Kirk, I think it changed the game. He helps us because he's super-long," said Grozier, who won his third district crown in four seasons at Danville to go along with his Class A title at Benton in 1998. "Ethan (Morrison, a junior guard) now can go in to help, and he's probably one of our better help defenders. He's also a really good defender on the ball."

Carver senior forward Tali Simpkins and sophomore guard Matt McField backed Brown at 9.3 and 8.6 points per game during the regular season. At 6-4, Simpkins is the Engineers' top rebounder. Sahin Rodriguez, a sophomore, scored a game-high 15 points in Carver's 51-44 first-round win over Pottsville.

The winner of today's game will advance to Friday's quarterfinals against either District 11 champion Allentown Central Catholic (21-6) or District 12 third-place Archbishop Carroll (18-8).