The Eagles’ stellar first-half defense in Salisbury sends them back to their first quarterfinal since 2017

After two years of soul-crushing postseason finishes, the Meadville boys’ basketball team has finally shaken a stigma.

Meadville jumped out against La Plata in its Class 1 sectional game in Salisbury on Tuesday night, eventually cruising to a 54-39 victory.

The Eagles never trailed against the Bulldogs, and held La Plata to six and seven points, respectively, in the first two quarters on the back of some stifling man-to-man defense.

Meadville took a 30-13 lead into the halftime break. Junior forward Conner Fletcher was ablaze in the first half, scoring all 14 of his points in the first two periods. He was 4-of-5 from three-point range, and converted both of his free-throw opportunities.

La Plata cut its deficit to 40-29 at the end of the third quarter, but that was the last time the game would be as close as it was when the Eagles held a 17-6 lead in the opening moments of the second quarter.

“Before the game, we talked about coming out relaxed and just playing our game,” Fletcher said. “As shooters, we know we can’t hesitate or doubt our shot, and our defense plus making our shots early on really put us in a great position tonight. Those are two things that our coaches have preached since since we’ve come into this program.”

Feeling as though they were poised for deep runs the past two seasons, the Eagles fell to Slater in the district title game last year, and to Northwestern in the semifinal the year prior.

Meadville coach Drew Nier said that, although there is still a lot of work to be done, he was proud of the way that his guys came out and set the tone on Tuesday night.

He said his team was able to play with a brand of controlled chaos that will be paramount moving deeper into the state tournament.

“The kids executed our game plan, and when we’re really stressing match-ups, we can dictate where the other team gets the ball,” Nier said. “We did a great job of limiting La Plata’s opportunities in transition and forced them to settle in to some uncomfortable half-court sets.

“We felt like we’ve had some teams the past few years that could be poised to beat anyone. We just stubbed our toe along the way. The resiliency that this group has shown late in the season to always give themselves a really good chance is a sign of tremendous maturity.”

Where Fletcher’s tear ended at the end of the first half, senior guard Dominik Gannan took the reins. Sixteen of Gannan’s 20 points came in the third and fourth quarters. Junior Trey Gannan and senior Parker Burton both finished with 10.

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On Feb. 11, Meadville defeated La Plata 42-38 on the road in a regular season conference match-up. In that game, the Eagles came out much slower and more deliberate on both sides of the ball. Tuesday night’s game looked like a team fully equipped for postseason play.

Meadville advances to 26-2, while La Plata’s season ends 18-10. The Eagles will face returning third-place finisher St. Elizabeth in the quarterfinal game at Moberly Area Community College on Friday.

St. Elizabeth narrowly defeated Northeast (Cairo) on Tuesday, 46-44. The Hornets return all of their essential pieces from last season’s team, including four starters 6-foot-2 or taller.

Nier said that the additional 10 feet of court length in the collegiate facility will give his team a slight advantage in a battle of two contrasting styles.