“Mr. High School Sports” – WPIAL Basketball Playoffs: Semifinals Set Stage for Rivalry Games Friday
By Matt Popchock
An NCAA berth seems unlikely for the Duquesne men, much less their Oakland brethren, but fans at the A.J. Palumbo Center Friday will enjoy an equally special postseason treat: the Lipke Bowl.
Top seed Lincoln Park hammered Vincentian Academy, 82-56, in the WPIAL Boys’ Basketball Class A Semifinals at North Hills High School Tuesday night, while No. 6 seed Cornell rallied late to upend North Catholic, 57-49, at West Allegheny High School. This puts the Leopards (21-4) into the championship game for the third straight year, and they’ll seek their first taste of WPIAL gold against the upstart Raiders (19-5) Friday.
Senior forward B.J. Lipke was quiet on this night, but he might be the most scrutinized player in the building Friday, which marks the third meeting this season between these teams. Previously he helped the Leopards defeat Cornell 92-81 on Jan. 13, and they also won the rematch at home, 76-52, to wrap up the section title Feb. 3.
Lipke lives in the Cornell School District, but attends Lincoln Park, a performing arts charter school. Because Lincoln Park has no football program, Lipke was ultimately permitted to start at wide receiver for Cornell’s football team prior to its dissolution this past year, and then play basketball at Lincoln Park.
The WPIAL’s rules governing charter schools are loose enough for Lipke to do this, but it also means the games between these A-Sec. 1 rivals are extra emotional. Two years ago Lipke was Cornell’s leading scorer during the Raiders’ run to the WPIAL Boys’ Basketball Semifinals, which included an upset of Clairton. Ironically, that team stunned the Bears again in this year’s WPIAL tournament.
His current team wasted little time rewriting last year’s script. Sophomore guard Trey Hosack continued to show his maturity with a game-high 29 points, going 10-of-17 from the field and 3-of-5 outside. Meanwhile, Temple recruit Devontae Watson was the usual one-man wrecking crew up front with 15 points (6-of-12), 17 rebounds, and six blocks.
Depending on how far Lincoln Park (21-4) goes in the state playoffs, Watson, currently second nationally in career blocks, has an outside chance to reach the 1,000 mark. The first D-1 scholar athlete in school history, he already has 1,000 career points and boards.
“I thought he played pretty well tonight, and I think that carried over from our last game. He’s the catalyst of the program…he seems to be peaking right now, and we need him to,” head coach Mark Javens said. “If that happens, we’re going to be real hard to beat.”
Sophomore forward Jim Kenna caught fire as the game wore on and led the Royals (21-4) with 13 points, but Lincoln Park came out and set a brisk pace at both ends of the floor–a pace Vincentian seemed unprepared to handle. The Leopards built leads of 22-10 after the first quarter and 41-21 at the half that were never really in jeopardy.
“It’s the intimidation factor. It’s not like us to slack off,” Watson said of his team, which has won three playoff games by a combined 104 points. “Our coaches told us to come out and play ball, and if we didn’t, that they’d shoot us out of the game. So we came out and played ball.”
Furthermore, the defending WPIAL champions, who had lost to the Lincoln Park in last year’s state semifinals after beating them for district gold, are a smaller team this season. That made a difference, as the Leopards physically stifled Vincentian, the highest-scoring Class A team during the regular season, for most of the night.
“We were patient. They tried to trap us everywhere they could with their zone, and we just kept getting to the middle and killing them there,” Hosack said.
“We wanted to get the ball and push it up the floor. We thought they were a little passive defensively, so we wanted to attack the rim, which we did,” Javens said.
It certainly appears to be a more balanced Lincoln Park squad than the one that bowed on The Bluff a year ago, which featured offensive workhorse Chaquille Pratt, one of the WPIAL’s top scorers last season.
“We’ve brought in Antonio Kellum, and then you add Ryan Skrovanko and Trey Hosack, who have been with the program for four years, and they’re pretty good. I’ll take three over one anytime,” Javens added.
For Lipke and the rest of his teammates, Javens hopes three is a magic number.
“Guys have been busting their [butts], and I’m proud of our team for that,” Hosack said. “We’ve been playing hard throughout the playoffs, and we just have to keep that up.”
Earlier in the evening, Seton-LaSalle (24-0) used a similar up-tempo style to fluster Keystone Oaks (19-7) for a 78-38 victory in the WPIAL Girls’ Basketball Class AA Semifinals at North Hills. The only undefeated girls’ squad in District 7 now has a shot at back-to-back championships when it takes on another AA-Sec. 5 rival, Bishop Canevin, at the Palumbo Center Friday.
Those two teams, which are just a few miles apart, have dominated WPIAL Class AA the past couple seasons. Seton-LaSalle won both regular season meetings, 68-60 on Jan. 16 and 61-50 on Feb. 9, though the Canevin girls made the Rebels work like few other opponents have the past few months. In fact, those are the Crusaders’ only two losses within Class AA so far.
Seton-LaSalle had the most prolific offense in the WPIAL during the regular campaign, but this game was just as much about its aggressive man-to-man defense. Natalie Piaggessi was the x-factor with 15 points on 7-of-7 shooting and seven blocks, and six-foot sophomore sensation Naje Gibson was unstoppable underneath with 24 points, going 9-of-11 from the field.
The Golden Eagles’ top gun, Alexa Xenakis, managed just six points on 3-of-11 shooting, along with seven boards and four assists, and Seton-LaSalle held her nearly three quarters without a bucket.
While Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch was there watching it unfold, his alma mater, Steel Valley, fell to the second-seeded Crusaders, 62-52, in the other Class AA semifinal contest at West Allegheny.
The silver lining for all of Tuesday’s–and Wednesday’s–boys’ and girls’ semifinal losers is that all of them, by virtue of their semifinal appearances, have qualified for their respective PIAA tournaments.
Here’s a look at the boys’ and girls’ WPIAL championship games to be played at Duquesne University Friday (seeds in parentheses):
GIRLS’ CLASS AAAA: (1) Oakland Catholic vs. (2) Mount Lebanon
GIRLS’ CLASS AA: (1) Seton-LaSalle vs. (2) Bishop Canevin
BOYS’ CLASS AAA: (1) New Castle vs. (3) Hampton
BOYS’ CLASS A: (1) Lincoln Park vs. (6) Cornell
Check back after Wednesday night’s games for more semifinal/championship round notes and quotes.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)