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BELLE VERNON – Coming off of its big win over New Castle Saturday, Belle Vernon opened a three-game stretch Tuesday night that will likely dictate the Class 4A Section 3 race with a 76-67 win over South Park.

“This is a tough stretch, and it is mental,” said Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino. “We are coming off a big win and it is like I told them, you don’t go and do what we were able to do against New Castle and play against other people and not be able to do that.

“It is a mental thing, and we were able to get the win tonight.”

The Leopards (7-0, 9-1) maintain a slim lead over second-place Elizabeth Forward (6-1, 6-3) and extend their lead over South Park (5-2, 5-2) to two games. EF was scheduled to play at Uniontown Tuesday night.

Belle Vernon pressured South Park into 24 turnovers and had balanced scoring as it placed four players in double figures with Quinton Martin (20), Jake Haney (19), Devin Whitlock (17) and Daniel Gordon (15) combining for 71 of the Leopards’ 76 points.

“That’s always nice when you have four guys in double figures,” Salvino said. “Everyone contributed in different ways.”

Haney led the Leps in the first quarter as he made all four of his field-goals attempts, including a trio of three-pointers, and added a free throw to pace Belle Vernon early with 12 points in the quarter.

Trailing 12-6 in the first, Martin subbed in and things instantly changed for Belle Vernon.

Martin, a freshman, brought a level of athleticism and manned the front line of Belle Vernon’s full-court press.

“His quickness, his hand quickness, Quinton is just the type of player that can do everything that has to be done,” Salvino said.

Although it trailed 22-21 after one, Belle Vernon slowly grabbed the momentum and it took a 36-34 lead into halftime.

The Leopards increased the defensive pressure to start the second half and a quick 8-0 run gave Belle Vernon a 44-34 lead.

“We started playing better defense in the third quarter,” Salvino said. “We came out and did what we had to do defensively which set the tone for the rest of the game.”

South Park countered with a 11-2 run to trim the gap to a single point at 46-45, but the Leps maintained poise and opened a 57-51 lead going into the fourth quarter as it started wearing down the Eagles.

Belle Vernon’s lead never dipped below six points in the fourth and it sealed the game down the stretch making six straight free throws in the last 1:19.

“That’s what we plan on doing to teams,” Salvino said of the second-half defense. “We want to put pressure on them and make them do things they normally don’t do during the course of a game.”

Belle Vernon made 11 of 22 free throws while South Park made one out of its three attempts in the game.

Whitlock, the junior guard, finished with six assists while Gordon added five.

Martin (five), Haney (five) and Tyler Kovatch combined for 14 steals for the Leps while Martin added a game-high 12 rebounds and had a pair of blocks.

Harper Conroy paced four Eagles in double figures with 18 points.

The Leopards continue their gauntlet in the section as it heads to EF Friday before going to South Park Monday.

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