Feb. 3—Dave Roman Jr. has been roaming the sidelines as a high school basketball coach in the region for a very long time. The longtime bench boss has coached 674 games, to be exact, but Friday's 57-53 win over Central in a key Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference battle will not be one he soon forgets.
The Hilltoppers earned a hard-fought win to stay in contention to reach the LHAC postseason tournament, but the victory was also the 400th of his career.
"As a young coach, you try to prove yourself, then as the years go on you mature," Roman said after his team improved to 15-4 on the year. "I think your 'why' changes, and I do it for the kids."
On Friday, his kids did it for him.
Central (16-4) brought on a significant challenge for Westmont Hilltop.
The game lived up to the billing of two of the best teams in the area going at it until the final buzzer sounded.
The Scarlet Dragons swung the momentum first, using their collective muscle to bang out an early 10-5 lead on Westmont Hilltop, but a jolt came in the form of the Hilltoppers' young backcourt.
Sophomore Jack Wesner and freshman Grant Craig buried back-to-back 3-pointers. Craig then drilled a half-court shot at the buzzer to make it 14-10.
Craig paced the Hilltoppers with 18, while Wesner added 10.
"They're beyond their years, Jack and G," Roman said of his young backcourt. "I get them both for two more (seasons) after this, so that's a great thing. They're just poised and the game is not too big for them. The moment wasn't too big."
Wesmont Hilltop had to lean on its guards, as Central had a pretty clear plan of not letting big man Noah Brownlee get anything going. Brownlee was limited to six points, but his teammates adjusted. Central bounced back from that end of quarter momentum swift and outscored the host team 17-11 in the second frame to take a 27-25 advantage into halftime.
From there, the game got tight. Neither side mounted a significant lead and each possession was bigger than the next. For two teams with conference and district title aspirations, it was a good playoff simulation, especially with a large crowd on hand.
"Obviously, that's what you want," Roman said of the postseason feel.
"Every possession is huge and you know how every possession in the playoffs is magnified, so every possession was big in this game."
Westmont Hilltop created some slight separation in the fourth. Craig hit an off-balance jumper and Connor Sweeney made a bucket to make it 54-48 with 3:46 left, but the Scarlet Dragons did not relent.
Senior Troy Butler hit a big 3-pointer and Hunter Smith added a basket to answer almost immediately.
Eventually, Westmont Hilltop was clinging to a 55-53 lead with 38 seconds remaining, but on an inbound pass, Central's Eli Muthler poked the ball away to give the Scarlet Dragons a shot to tie or take the lead with under a minute remaining.
Muthler was superb on Friday. In addition to that clutch steal, the junior forward netted a game-high 19 points.
On the critical possession that followed, Smith got off a clean look from 3-point range, but it rimmed out and Westmont Hilltop ultimately set the final at the charity stripe.
"It's unbelievable. Four-hundred," Craig said of his coach's milestone.
"He's been here coaching for so long. I love him as a coach. He's my guy."
Roman has coached for 27 seasons with 25 of those at Westmont Hilltop.
He has guided the Hilltoppers to four District 6 and three LHAC titles.
It has been a long journey for Roman since his first year coaching at Johnstown Vo-Tech.
"Not after going 2-22 at Vo-Tech," Roman laughed off when asked if his younger self could picture where he is today. "I was very fortunate Westmont hired me that next year. I've been very blessed to have some outstanding assistant coaches and obviously some outstanding players. They win games, I just try to put them in a great position to do that, and hopefully I've done that over the years."