By Matt Popchock
Jamie Dixon was among the several familiar faces seen at North Allegheny High School Saturday, reportedly in attendance to scout 6’6″ Gateway senior guard Tyler Scott, who was offered long ago by neighborhood rival Ron Everhart. Hopefully he stuck around long enough to see Scott’s less scrutinized backcourt buddy borrow the spotlight.
The performance of 6’4″ senior Luke Kochka in a 68-44 grudge-match victory over Seneca Valley in PIAA Class AAAA First Round action was a microcosm of the Gators’ postseason run; one never knows, on any given night, who’s going to wear the cape. Kochka drained a game-high 24 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter alone, to help Gateway (21-6) pull away from the Raiders, who trailed just 28-24 at halftime.
He ended up 9-of-12 from the field, and, unofficially, converted his last nine attempts.
“I’ve never had a quarter like that, ever,” Kochka said. “We just kept playing and moving the ball as a team. We played good defense, made turnovers, and capitalized on them.”
It capped off a solid weekend for the WPIAL in the 2012 PIAA Basketball Championships, which saw 15 local boys’ teams and 14 girls’ squads advance to the second round of their respective tournaments. District 7 originally sent 23 boys’ teams and 23 girls’ teams to the PIAA playoffs.
With its impressive win, Gateway earned a date with Shaler (24-3), another of the most athletic teams in WPIAL Class AAAA, and one of several teams in that classification eager to atone for a disappointing exit in the district playoffs. Those combatants tip off Wednesday at 8:00 P.M. at the A.J. Palumbo Center, where the Gators recently celebrated their second consecutive WPIAL title.
The Titans looked like a probable Palumbo attendee coming off one of their best regular campaigns in program history, in which they coasted to the AAAA-Sec. 3 crown and a deserving No. 1 playoff seed. But a gritty 46-44 upset by upstart Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the WPIAL Semifinals denied them district gold.
In order for Shaler to end Gateway’s season, they may once again need to rely on their defense, while leaning less on the shoulders of 6’3″ junior guard and Penn State recruit Geno Thorpe. He was one of the WPIAL’s top scorers this season, but he went cold in the second half against Central, and his supporting cast just couldn’t muster enough offense.
I haven’t seen a team that can offset Gateway’s size, nor have I seen a Quad-A team control the paint the way the Gators did in their last two wins. However, Shaler has shown grit beyond only Thorpe. The Titans have allowed 49.3 points per game, which is exactly one point less than the Gators have given up per contest. Up front they need to do what Seneca Valley didn’t: maintain consistency.
Meanwhile, Beaver Falls swingman Sheldon Jeter, as he has so many times, also ramped up his own game at North Allegheny Saturday. He too has been entertained by Dixon, among several other D-1 coaches, and his Tigers (25-2) will take on Conemaugh Township (23-3), the District 5 Class AA champ, Wednesday night at 7:30 at Hempfield High School thanks to a 69-37 first-round drubbing of Lakeview.
The third qualifier from District 10, the Sailors used a consistent 2-3 zone to test Jeter’s skills, but it didn’t matter, as the senior and his mates consistently sliced and diced their defense. Jeter, who led the field with 23 points on 11-of-20 shooting to go with eight boards and four blocks, even had out-of-town broadcasters marveling over him all day.
Conemaugh Township is a very well-rounded bunch, and probably matches up a little better than Lakeview, but I have to like BF’s chances against the Indians. Three of Doug Biega’s starters, including Jeter, are taller than any player on Conemaugh’s roster; plus, Jeter’s teammates have helped him out at both ends. Entering the postseason, the Tigers were the least scored-upon team in WPIAL Class AA, and they’ve actually improved their average to 43.1 points allowed per game.
If Beaver Falls handles its business, that could set up a fascinating quarterfinal against Greensburg Central Catholic, another skilled defensive squad one year removed from the WPIAL and PIAA Finals. In a triumph of fate, the Centurions meet arch-rival Jeannette at Hempfield Wednesday at 6:00.
Even if the latter isn’t the best game in the Class AA bracket, it might be the most passionate.
Look no further than Ralph Blundo’s New Castle boys if it’s passion you seek. The still-perfect Red Hurricane (27-0) have not countenanced their trail of destruction since the beginning of the season, and they enjoy a No. 3 state-wide ranking from MaxPreps as they get set to re-enter the Palumbo Center Tuesday at 8:00 against 2011 WPIAL champion Montour.
The Spartans (21-4) are headed to The Bluff a bit later than they were hoping, given their WPIAL Semifinal loss to Hampton. But don’t sleep on Montour, which probably played New Castle as tough as any of its opponents this season in their last meeting Jan. 21:
New Castle is the best Class AAA team I’ve seen, bar none. Should it repeat history, it’ll have to contend with one of two other teams making history. Beaver is enjoying its best season in a quarter-century as it matches up with District 10 juggernaut General McLane (24-0).
Last year WPIAL boys went to the Bryce Jordan Center empty-handed. Expect change in 2012, let’s just put it that way.
PIAA BOYS’ 2nd ROUND SCHEDULE:
Class A: Vincentian Academy vs. Vision Quest @ Sharon – 6:00; Lincoln Park vs. Shade @ IUP – 7:30
Class AAA: Hampton vs. Johnstown @ Hempfield – 7:30; Beaver vs. General McLane @ Sharon – 7:30; New Castle vs. Montour @ Duquesene – 8:00
Class AA: Greensburg C.C. vs. Jeannette @ Hempfield – 6:00; Sto-Rox vs. Quaker Valley @ Duquesne – 6:30; Monessen vs. Mercyhurst @ New Castle – 7:30; Beaver Falls vs. Conemaugh Township @ Hempfield – 7:30
Class AAAA: Pittsburgh Central Catholic vs. Erie Cathedral Prep @ Sharon – 7:00; Gateway vs. Shaler @ Duquesne – 8:00
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)