By Matt Popchock
Doesn’t it seem like the Four-Letter Network, among other media outlets, always comes up with a fancy name or catchphrase to hype important games? Well, perhaps this obliges Mr. High School Sports to do the same. For example, there’s “Judgment Thursday” (or was it “Judgment Saturday?”) during college basketball season. So it’s time to break down what will be anointed as “Judgment Friday” in WPIAL basketball by this blog.
It’s a day on which some section titles will be divvied up, and we find out who the top playoff seeds will likely be, not to mention who will be standing in their path to the Palumbo Center. Right now 74 boys’ teams across four classifications have already punched their tickets to the postseason, but as many as 13 playoff berths are still up for grabs, and a few spots are still at stake on the girls’ side too.
So without further ado, here’s a quick glance at some of the critical matchups coming to a court near you:
GIRLS’ CLASS AAAA, SECTION 4
Baldwin (9-2, 16-4) @ Bethel Park (9-2, 17-3) (7:30)
Unless Mount Lebanon stubs its toe against Canon-McMillan, this game won’t mean more than playoff positioning for these two. If that does happen, however, the winner here gets a share of the section title. Either way, it’ll be fun to watch two of the Post-Gazette’s top five and see if Quad-A scoring leader Belma Nurkic of the Highlanders (19.5 ppg) can outfox the Lady Hawks’ Candace Martino and Bethel Park’s very stubborn defense.
Mount Lebanon (9-1, 14-5) @ Upper St. Clair (5-6, 9-10) (7:30)
The playoff-bound Panthers have a chance to play spoiler and deny the No. 1 team in Quad-A an outright section title. To pull the upset they’ll have to do the near-impossible and contain the classification’s No. 2 scorer, the Blue Devils’ Madison Cable (17.4 ppg), because once she finds a rhythm Lebo is virtually unstoppable. If she and Mount Lebanon handle their business Thursday, they win at least a share of the section.
GIRLS’ CLASS AAA, SECTION 4
South Park (8-1, 16-3) @ Thomas Jefferson (7-2, 14-6) (7:30)
This longtime rivalry has an added twist. The Eagles, the Post-Gazette’s No. 2 squad, will be section co-champs at the very least, but they can win the whole thing if they walk out of TJ with a victory. Ashley Stoner leads the Jaguars and also leads Class AAA (No. 3 in the WPIAL) with 21 points per game, and one of the premier underclassmen in District 7, sophomore Shelby Lindsay, leads the Eagles with 16.8 per contest. Check back with Mr. High School Sports at 937thefan.com later for extensive coverage of this game.
GIRLS’ CLASS AA, SECTION 2
Beaver Falls (10-1, 16-5) @ Riverside (10-1, 18-3) (7:30)
The Panthers are the No. 4 team in the Post-Gazette’s rankings, while the visiting Tigers, like Riverside, have flown under the radar in the bigger Class AA picture, and on Thursday they’ll play for the section title. Sam Weir is the focal point of the Riverside offense (16.7 ppg), but the real story is the Panthers’ defense, which has allowed only eight teams all year to score 40 or more points. Weir needs to be patient in this game, though, because the Tigers’ defense, statistically, isn’t that far behind.
GIRLS’ CLASS AA, SECTION 3
Greensburg C.C. (10-1, 15-4) @ Jeannette (10-1, 11-8) (7:30)
The coaching regime has changed, but the aspirations of the WPIAL champion Jayhawks have not. They will host their neighborhood nemesis Thursday night with the outright section championship at stake. Ciara Gregory, the No. 2 scorer in the district, averages 21.5 points per game for Jeannette, while Tess Zufall (15.3 ppg) leads the Centurions, who boast a balanced offense that ranks second in Class AA. For semi-obvious reasons, this could be one of the best girls’ games of the night.
GIRLS’ CLASS A, SECTION 2
North Catholic (8-1, 15-5) @ Vincentian Academy (9-0, 18-1) (7:30)
It’s another rematch of the girls’ Class A title game last year, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a championship showdown could happen again. The top two teams in the classification will meet again Thursday, and the Trojanettes can get some small measure of revenge by earning a share of the section title with a win over the WPIAL champs. Gabby Baldasare averages 15 per game for the Royals, but North Catholic, likes its opponent, owns one of the top-ranked offenses and top-ranked defenses in the classification…and an x-factor in Kendall Hoffman. This one could go a lot of ways.
BOYS’ CLASS AAAA, SECTION 2
Gateway (9-2, 17-4) @ McKeesport (5-6, 13-7) (7:30)
The section title already belongs to Gateway, even though the Post-Gazette’s No. 4 Class AAAA team has had a couple hiccups along the way, and the Tigers hope one more is in store, because they need an upset to survive a very muddied playoff scenario. Not having the services of Tyler Scott (21.8 ppg) for academic reasons deals a big blow to the Gators, though Devon Cottrell (17.7 ppg), another of Quad-A’s top scorers, is having a solid year as well. Three of McKeesport’s starters average double figures, including guard Mike Resnik (14.3 ppg), and the Tigers seem to be peaking at the right time.
BOYS’ CLASS AAA, SECTION 1
Hampton (10-3, 14-6) @ Highlands (11-2, 14-7) (7:30)
What will Micah Mason do next? That’s what everyone is probably wondering about the young man who recently turned in one of the greatest regular-season performances in western PA history, a young man who leads the WPIAL at 34.6 points per game and leads the Golden Rams Friday in their quest for a share of the section title. The Talbots can grab a piece of that pie with a win on the road, and both teams could conceivably win the section outright, if Mars loses. Hampton allows just 43.6 points per game, second-fewest in Class AAA, but can it withstand the charge of Class AAA’s second-ranked offense?
BOYS’ CLASS AAA, SECTION 5
Montour (10-1, 15-6) @ South Fayette (11-0, 18-0) (7:30)
Times are good for athletics at South Fayette, and an outright section title admist a strong grouping in Section 5, punctuated next week by an undefeated regular season, would make them even greater. The top-ranked Lions have been the most dominant offensive team in Class AAA, and not only has their up-tempo game produced a 74.3 points-per-game clip, they boast one of the most exciting players in the WPIAL, Mike Lamberti, a top-ten shooting guard who averages 20.4. For the Spartans, who clinch a section co-championship with a win, their best bet is the poise of their defense, which allows under 49 points a game overall and has played at a higher level within the section.
BOYS’ CLASS AA, SECTION 4
Greensburg C.C. (11-0, 19-2) @ Jeannette (10-1, 14-5) (7:30)
The first meeting between these Westmoreland County rivals was a titanic struggle, and we expect the rematch to be no different; a victory by top-ranked GCC gives them the section title outright, but a win at home by Post-Gazette No. 5 Jeannette gives that team a piece of the crown, and a huge ego boost entering the playoffs. Jesse Reed is averaging 16.7 points a game for a Centurions squad that has remained hot despite seeing some talented players come and go this year, and he’ll have to match wits with athletic scorer Demetrius Cox, who’s been getting a lot of help from Jordan Batts (17.2 ppg). Check back with Mr. High School Sports at 937thefan.com later for extensive coverage of this game.
BOYS’ CLASS A, SECTION 2
Vincentian Academy (9-0, 19-0) @ North Catholic (8-1, 14-5) (7:30)
The planets have aligned in favor of those who wanted to see two of the top five in Class A duke it out for a significant prize, as the host Trojans need a win to secure a share of the section title. Post-Gazette No. 5 North Catholic really needs its inside game to be on its game with the Post-Gazette No. 2 Royals averaging over 70 points per game, second-best in Class A, though they’ve already proven they can hang with this team on their best day despite an earlier loss. John Bray averages 17 a game for Vincentian, and Chris Koryak averages 16.7, but Ryan Lewis, who had 17 in the last meeting, is heating up, and doesn’t think the visitors have seen his team at its best…
BOYS’ CLASS A, SECTION 4
Clairton (5-4, 6-10) @ Serra Catholic (8-1, 14-5) (7:30)
Could the playoff-bound Bears be catching this team at an opportune time? Post-Gazette No. 4 Serra needs a win to take the section title outright from St. Joseph, but the Eagles are coming off a loss to Leechburg that snapped a seven-game win streak and does not look good on the resume of a WPIAL title hopeful, and they needed a buzzer-beater from Matt Loftis to get past Clairton Jan. 21. Tyler Boyd has stepped up in the absence of Dez Green, and he’ll need a lot of answers for Serra, one of the top offensive teams in Class A at 63.3 points per game.
For continuing coverage of WPIAL basketball–and a look ahead to the WPIAL Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports next week!