When a Deer Lakes player has gotten to the free-throw line this season, they typically have looked like a deer in the headlights.

“We had been [shooting] about 50% for the year,” coach Albie Fletcher said. “It’s been our Achilles’ heel.”

Well, the Lancers finally shot it well Friday from the line, which was a good thing because they got there a lot … a whole lot.

In a game that saw Burrell’s entire starting five foul out, defending WPIAL Class 3A champion Deer Lakes converted free throw after free throw and was excellent defensively on its way to a 65-43 win in front of a raucous crowd at Deer Lakes High School.

Billy Schaeffer scored a team-high 21 points for Deer Lakes (8-2, 3-0), which moved into sole possession of first place in Section 3 while handing Burrell (7-3, 3-1) its third consecutive loss and first against a WPIAL foe. Deer Lakes split the section title with Shady Side Academy a year ago before going on to win its first WPIAL title and advancing to the PIAA final for the first time.

Physical. Chippy. Loud. Intense. All of those words could be used to describe the matchup between rival schools located 12 miles apart.

“It’s always like this, a good rivalry game,” Schaeffer said with a smile.

Added teammate Aiden Fletcher, “We know what to expect. It’s the same thing every time, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Well, aside from one team’s five starters fouling out. Burrell starters Macky Bennis, Tucker Bitar, Joey Discello, Dylan McKallip and Esau King-Buchak each fouled out Friday in the fourth quarter. Bennis, Burrell’s leading scorer, was saddled with foul trouble throughout and finished with just 4 points, 14 below his average. Burrell was whistled for 33 fouls and Deer Lakes 20, while Deer Lakes finished 34 of 45 from the line (75%) and Burrell 8 of 14 (57%).

“It’s hard to win basketball games when you’re being outshot on the free-throw line by almost 30 points,” Burrell coach Mike Fantuzzo said.

So, in a game in which Deer Lakes made only 13 field goals (including five 3-pointers), the Lancers still were able to seize a 22-point win. Schaeffer and Collin Rodgers did the most damage at the free-throw line, with Schaeffer going 14 of 15 and Rodgers 10 of 12.

“We’ve been emphasizing this for the past week, so it’s awesome to come out and execute,” Schaeffer said. “We got the opportunity to showcase what we can do on the line.”

The Deer Lakes student section cheers on its team Friday night against Burrell. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Schaeffer is a senior guard and the Lancers’ only returning starter, yet this is still a veteran team due to players such as Fletcher, Rodgers and Wayne Love playing big roles on the 2023 championship squad.

“The experience they got last year in that playoff run is invaluable, and I think it really showed tonight,” said Albie Fletcher, in his second season as coach. “We knew it was going to be a chippy game. We talked all week about staying focused and doing our thing, and I’m really proud of them because they executed that to perfection.”

You can’t spell Deer without “D,” and Deer Lakes executed on the defensive end of the floor throughout. Burrell was limited to just 6 points in the first quarter and 8 in the second as Deer Lakes built a 25-14 halftime lead. The Bucs made just three of their first 25 shots from the field and didn’t convert their first field goal of the second quarter until Bitar knocked down a 3-pointer with 31 seconds left. Bitar had all but three of Burrell’s points in the first half and finished with a game-high 24 points. For the game, Burrell was just 15-of-53 shooting (28%).

Despite the many fouls and missed shots, Burrell remained in striking distance of Deer Lakes deep into the third quarter, trailing, 32-22, with two minutes left. Unfortunately for the Bucs, that deficit grew to 43-26 by the time the quarter was over.

Tucker Bitar scored a game-high 24 points for Burrell, including 11 of the team’s 14 points in the first half. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Rodgers (12 points) joined Schaeffer in double figures for Deer Lakes, while Aiden Fletcher, J.T. McCue and Nathaniel Moore each added 9. McCue converted three 3-pointers.

This time a year ago, Deer Lakes had a record of 5-5 and didn’t yet look like a WPIAL and PIAA title contender.

Sitting at 8-2 a year later after what was a historic season, Albie Fletcher said he is excited about what the Lancers have ahead of them.

“They have a ton of potential. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “The bar was set very high last year. They learned from a great group of seniors that led and showed the way. These guys have picked up and are carrying that torch right now.”

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.

Brad Everett

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.