“Mr. High School Sports” – PIAA Basketball Finals Preview
By Matt Popchock
Who says basketball is not relevant at Penn State? It certainly will be for a few District 7 teams trying to realize their dreams at the Bryce Jordan Center on Friday and Saturday. The final weekend of the 2010-11 high school basketball season is upon us, as the WPIAL’s survivors head to PSU’s main campus with the PIAA Boys’ and Girls’ Basketball Championships at stake.
Last season the WPIAL sent three boys’ teams and two girls’ squads to the state finals, and the Mount Lebanon girls, South Fayette boys, and Sewickley Academy boys all left with gold medals. Western PA was well represented in ’09-’10, and this season was no different, though the field was a little less kind to the local girls this time.
Mount Lebanon is the only WPIAL girls’ team playing for a PIAA crown this weekend, though if you want to talk quality over quantity, Dori Oldaker’s Blue Devils are it. They’re at PSU for the fourth time in a row and are trying to become the sixth PIAA girls’ program to “three-peat” as champions since PIAA basketball was expanded to four classifications prior to the 1983-84 season. The last three-time winner was York Catholic (District 3) in Class AA in 2007-08; the only WPIAL team to do it was North Catholic, which won the last of three straight Class AAA titles in 1994-95. No team has ever done it in Class AAAA.
The boys have fared a little better this year; the WPIAL will be represented in all four classifications this weekend. The Mount Lebanon boys have a chance to mirror the success of their female counterparts in Quad-A as they pursue their first-ever state crown. Montour will be playing for its first as well in Class AAA, and Greensburg Central Catholic, which got some sweet postseason revenge this week, will be doing the same in Class AA. Meanwhile, Lincoln Park is continuing its own tour of redemption and is technically trying to win its first state title, though defunct Midland High School, which preceded them, won five, most recently in 1976.
Here’s a quick look back at what’s already happened in the PIAA Playoffs this week, followed by a quick look ahead to the PIAA Basketball Championship games with local implications:
In Class AAAA, Mount Lebanon showed tremendous character by outlasting the 2009 champion and 2010 runner-up, Penn Wood from District 1, in overtime. In Class AAA, Montour, which used stifling defense to slow down South Fayette in the WPIAL Championship, did it to the Lions again to continue their remarkable run. In Class AA, Jesse Reed went off against Monessen once again, but this time his supporting cast came through, as Greensburg Central Catholic outplayed the WPIAL champs inside and edged the Greyhounds for a trip to Happy Valley. In Class A, Lincoln Park rewrote another script by tightening up its team defense and upending a Vincentian Academy squad that had struggled for offense since its impressive outburst against the Leopards at the Palumbo Center.
In Class AAAA, Mount Lebanon, after thoroughly redeeming itself against Shaler, continued displaying new found determination in hammering Lower Merion of District 1 for a return trip to Penn State–the fourth straight double-digit win by the Blue Devils, and third in the state tournament by at least 20 points. In Class AAA, Mercyhurst Prep from District 10 got revenge for last year’s First Round exit by knocking off defending state champion New Castle. In Class AA, another District 10 squad, Villa Maria Academy–the same one that dropped Seton-LaSalle in last year’s Quarterfinals–schooled the Rebels again for the right to defend their title.
And so these are the matchups that lie ahead…
BOYS’ CLASS AAAA FINAL:
Mount Lebanon (29-3) vs. Chester (Dist. 1) (30-1) – Saturday, 7:00 PM
There are quite a few adjectives one can use to describe the Clippers’ offense, each of them positive. The No. 1 Class AAAA team in Pennsylvania according to MaxPreps.com has been scoring at a 75 points-per-game rate, and it’s almost impossible to slow them down. But if there’s one team that can do so, it’s the Blue Devils, who owned the top defense in WPIAL Class AAAA during the regular season at 41 points allowed per game. Maurice Johnson led Chester with 16 points in a rout of Plymouth-Whitemarsh, and he is at the cusp of a very balanced attack. Often the Blue Devils go as far as big man Paul Lang takes them, but keep an eye on Evan Eaton, who kept up his hot shooting in the postseason with 23 points against Penn Wood. For Lebo, a major key to victory will be its ability to force turnovers and score in transition. The Clippers are going for their seventh state title and first since 2008.
BOYS’ CLASS AAA FINAL:
Montour (23-7) vs. Neumann-Goretti (Dist. 12) (26-4) – Friday, 8:00 PM
Normally a team like the PIAA Class AAA champion Saints, which held off former WPIAL Class AAA member Chartiers Valley for their first-ever state trophy a year ago, would put the fear of God into a team like the Spartans, who didn’t even win their own section. They took care of District 3 champion Lancaster Catholic in the Semifinals, thanks to 26 points from Billy Shank, who displayed impressive range with his six three-pointers. But this is no pedestrian Montour squad. The Spartans, with terrific team defense throughout the postseason, have developed a knack for shutting down the other team’s best player, just as they did South Fayette’s Mike Lamberti…twice. Dillon Buechel led the Spartans with 19 against the Lions in the Semifinals, and Aaron McGee, among others, made some big shots from the outside. Montour will need that outside shooting in order to survive the Saints, who the Spartans need to frustrate early and get them in foul trouble late, as the WPIAL champs have improved their foul shooting considerably.
BOYS’ CLASS AA FINAL:
Greensburg C.C. (27-3) vs. Imhotep (Dist. 12) (30-3) – Saturday, 2:00 PM
Something has to give when the WPIAL runners-up and the Philadelphia Public League champions (No. 1 PIAA Class AA team according to MaxPreps.com) collide in a battle for each school’s first-ever state title, and something certainly has to give offensively if the Panthers are to earn it. Defensively they got the job done against Philadelphia Communications Tech in the Semifinals, but they didn’t shoot well, and that phase of Imhotep’s game has taken a small step backward in the state playoffs. One thing that team has done well is box out and get traffic in front of the basket; Erik Coles led the charge against Comm. Tech with 11 rebounds to go with his six points and two blocks. So the Centurions, who aren’t afraid to bang bodies down low, need to get gritty and go to work. P.J. McLaughlin can attest to that after powering GCC with a game-high 24 points in a dramatic win over Monessen, a team with a strong inside presence. Greensburg Central, on its best day, can adapt to any opponent, as long as sharpshooter Jesse Reed stays hot, but this game might be more about whether Reed’s supporting cast will come through again or not, and if they can out-tough the Panthers.
BOYS’ CLASS A FINAL:
Lincoln Park (21-7) vs. Philadelphia Math, Civics & Sciences (Dist. 12) (25-5) – Friday, 3:00 PM
You wondered if one of the most athletic teams in western PA, the WPIAL Class A runners-up, would learn their lesson. You wondered if the Leopards could defend better as a team and manage the ball better as a team. Well, wonder no more. They’re on the verge of ending a 35-year state title drought after dispatching with an equally athletic Clairton squad that got red-hot down the stretch, and then overcoming the WPIAL champions from Vincentian Academy, which had beaten them by displaying superior team chemistry. The “twin towers,” Chaquille Pratt and Devontae Watson, each contributed 15 points in the rematch, and now standing between Lincoln Park and the state title is another charter school, another young program that has gotten pretty darn good in a short period of time. The Mighty Elephants have an excellent guard tandem in Jeremiah Worthem, who scored 26 in the Semifinals against Constitution, and Thomas Moore, who averages 15 a game despite a quiet tournament thus far. But the bottom line is, if Pratt hits his shots, and Watson can control the offensive glass, you have to at least like LP’s chances.
GIRLS’ CLASS AAAA FINAL:
Mount Lebanon (24-6) vs. Archbishop Carroll (Dist. 12) (24-5) – Friday, 6:00 PM
As previously mentioned, the Blue Devils’ average margin of victory during the PIAA tournament has been in the upper teens, while the Patriots’ average margin of victory through four state playoff rounds has been over 27 points. So as they prepare for a rematch of last year’s PIAA Final, it’s pretty obvious they’re the two best Quad-A teams in the state once again. Rachel Pearson is coming off a big 13-point effort against Boyertown in the Semifinals, but it’s Archbishop Carroll’s defense that presents such a stiff challenge. The scary thing about Mount Lebanon, though, is that it’s shown it doesn’t have to lean on Madison Cable. Kelly Johnson and Emma Pellicano each pumped in 16 points against Lower Merion, and meanwhile the Blue Devils’ defense hasn’t missed a beat. Whether Lebo can mirror AC’s team chemistry on offense will go a long way toward deciding if the defending champs prevail again.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)