By Matt Popchock
The moment of truth has finally arrived for eight boys’ and eight girls’ WPIAL basketball teams. Which of them will be wearing gold medals around their necks after the final buzzer sounds at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center Friday and Saturday? What’s so amusing about predictions is that many of them seem destined to go wrong, but that’s not going to stop Mr. High School Sports from being bold and offering his honest thoughts on championship weekend.
Feel free to leave your own picks below, but in the meantime, here is Mr. High School Sports’ fearless WPIAL Basketball Championship forecast. We’ll start with my picks for Friday’s games, and you can now view my picks for Saturday’s games as well:
GIRLS’ CLASS AA:
#1 Seton-LaSalle (23-2) vs. #6 Jeannette (15-8) – Friday, 5 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Naje Gibson, Seton-LaSalle (27 points in Semifinal win over Bishop Canevin); Ciara Gregory, Jeannette (23 points in Semifinal win over Beaver Falls)
HOW SETON-LaSALLE CAN WIN: Dictate the tempo. The Rebels play a fast-paced game that is difficult to prepare for, and they spread the ball around exceptionally well.
HOW JEANNETTE CAN WIN: Start fast. The Jayhawks can’t afford another slow start like the one they had in the Semifinals against a team that knows how to put its opponents away.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Jeannette continues to show the character of a championship team even under a new coaching staff. But, Gibson is playing beyond her years, and she’s not the only one on that bench who can score. This looks like the year Seton-LaSalle gets its revenge.
BOYS’ CLASS A:
#4 Vincentian Academy (23-1) vs. #3 Lincoln Park (17-6) – Friday, 7 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Chaquille Pratt, Lincoln Park (25 points in Semifinal win over North Catholic); John Bray, Vincentian Academy (31 points in Semifinal win over Clairton)
HOW VINCENTIAN ACADEMY CAN WIN: Pressure the ball. It worked against Clairton, and similarly, teams seem to have the most success against the Leopards when they get in their faces.
HOW LINCOLN PARK CAN WIN: Execution. The Leopards might be the more athletic of the two teams, but they aren’t always efficient on offense. They need to minimize mistakes against a Royals squad that can and will exploit them.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: It’s really impressive the way Bray has stepped up his own game in the playoffs. But, I’ve yet to see a team provide a long-term solution for Pratt, and double-teaming him leaves more looks for Devontae Watson. I say, Lincoln Park pulls out a hard-fought (mild) upset.
BOYS’ CLASS AAA:
#1 South Fayette (22-1) vs. #7 Montour (18-7) – Friday, 9 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Mike Lamberti, South Fayette (22 points in Semifinal win over New Castle); Devin Wilson, Montour (17 points in Semifinal win over Blackhawk)
HOW SOUTH FAYETTE CAN WIN: Play their game. The Lions play with the kind of fervor and chemistry that has been virtually impossible for teams to match. As long as they don’t turn the ball over, that probably won’t change.
HOW MONTOUR CAN WIN: Don’t get intimidated. Although this is the first WPIAL title game for South Fayette, the Spartans have even less experience on the bigger stage. They can’t afford to play a tentative game against a team like this that can get up on you quickly.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: My hat’s off to Montour on a great run, but South Fayette has already handled their section rivals twice and seems to be the buzz saw of the Class AAA bracket.
GIRLS’ CLASS A:
#4 Fort Cherry (22-3) vs. #3 North Catholic (18-7) – Saturday, 11:00 AM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Rebekah Bellhy (20 points in Semifinal win over Rochester); Kendall Hoffman, North Catholic (20 points in Semifinal win over Monessen)
HOW FORT CHERRY CAN WIN: Be opportunistic. The Rangers really stifled Rochester in the second half of their last game, but struggled for points themselves too. There will be much less room for error against the well-schooled Trojanettes.
HOW NORTH CATHOLIC CAN WIN: No complacency. On paper this team has just as much talent as last year’s team that fell short at the Palumbo Center, but it needs to show the same poise and desire it did against a tough Monessen squad.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Fort Cherry is a grinding team that tries to shorten the game. Teams like they that have to scrap for points don’t always fare well against seasoned teams like North Catholic, whom I look for to roll to victory.
BOYS’ CLASS AA:
#1 Greensburg C.C. (23-2) vs. #3 Monessen (22-2) – Saturday, 1:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Jesse Reed, Greensburg C.C. (25 points in Semifinal win over Sto-Rox); Cam Johnson, Monessen (21 points, 20 rebounds in Semifinal win over Wilkinsburg)
HOW GREENSBURG C.C. CAN WIN: Keep them guessing. Monessen will likely try to double-team and trap Jesse Reed, so the Centurions need to spread the ball around, and Reed’s mates need to be prepared to handle it.
HOW MONESSEN CAN WIN: Be aggressive. GCC is not afraid to get its noses dirty in the paint, and the Greyhounds need to rise to that challenge and get in their faces on the back end.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: This could be a “law of the jungle” game–do what you must to survive. Monessen has been a very responsible defensive team, and GCC has had some offensive hiccups in this tournament, so I’m feeling a Greyhounds upset.
GIRLS’ CLASS AAA:
#5 Blackhawk (20-5) vs. #11 Ambridge (20-6) – Saturday, 3:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Alexa Hayward, Blackhawk (21 points in Semifinal win over Indiana); Erin Smith, Ambridge (14 points in New Castle)
HOW BLACKHAWK CAN WIN: Ball movement. The synergy between Hayward and Alexis Graham has been a big key for the Cougars this year, and it’ll be important once more against a team that forces you to make bad decisions–and bad plays–on offense.
HOW AMBRIDGE CAN WIN: Be patient. This is how the Bridgers beat section rivals Hopewell and New Castle. The temptation will be there to press and try to run with Blackhawk. Ambridge needs to just settle down and play defense.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: The way Ambridge plays defense, it makes the Bridgers a prime candidate for another major upset (New Castle can attest to that). But Blackhawk has enough firepower that, as long as it plays the game it played against Indiana, it will win.
GIRLS’ CLASS AAAA:
#1 Mount Lebanon (20-5) vs. #2 Shaler (23-2) – Saturday, 7:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Madison Cable, Mount Lebanon (25 points, 12 rebounds, 4 steals in Semifinal win over Oakland Catholic); Val McQuade, Shaler (22 points in Semifinal win over Bethel Park)
HOW MOUNT LEBANON CAN WIN: Team defense. Both teams can score up front, where, physically, they are pretty evenly matched. But the way Mount Lebanon defends man-to-man is always an x-factor, and they need to keep that turnover total mounting.
HOW SHALER CAN WIN: Early execution. One of the few things you can fault the Titans for is that sometimes they start slowly and don’t take advantage of good looks at the basket. Sufficed to say, Mount Lebanon is very capable of exploiting mistakes.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Both teams are coming off games in which they struggled offensively in the first half. If Lebo can shake off those early doldrums and maintain good damage control–Shaler often gets better as the game wears on–the Blue Devils will win a tight one.
BOYS’ CLASS AAAA:
#4 Gateway (21-4) vs. #6 Chartiers Valley (20-5) – Saturday, 9:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Devin Cottrell, Gateway (19 points, 13 rebounds in Semifinal win over Butler); Matt Noszka, Chartiers Valley (13 points in Semifinal win over Mount Lebanon)
HOW GATEWAY CAN WIN: Self-discipline. The Gators have the physical tools to match up well with this team, but they need to minimize mistakes, which they were fortunate to get away with against USC.
HOW CHARTIERS VALLEY CAN WIN: Balance. This is a well-rounded offense that is difficult to stop if its guards are hitting shots; if you worry about them, you give more open looks to their forwards, which is the last thing you want.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Gateway has the raw ability of a champion, but Chartiers Valley has the responsibility and the attention to detail. The way Tim McConnell has coached up his kids in this tournament, I foresee it ending on a positive note for the Colts.
Don’t forget to check out Mr. High School Sports’ live blog during championship Saturday at 937thefan.com!