By Matt Popchock

North Catholic head coach David Long made sure his team didn’t get caught looking ahead.  Nevertheless, the anticipation builds for that upcoming rematch with first-place Vincentian Academy, and Friday’s win helped build it.

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Defending PIAA Class A champion Sewickley Academy has an incredible talent in Carrington Motley, but the Panthers (4-4, 7-9) have also lost some incredible talent, and couldn’t match the incredible balance of the host Trojans (7-1, 13-5), who rolled to a 53-35 triumph at North Catholic High School’s Graham Court.

The consensus No. 5 Class A team remains within one game of the top-ranked Royals in Section 2 despite allowing a game-high 21 points to Motley, having won four straight and suffered the only loss in their last nine outings against Vincentian.

Meanwhile, new-look Sewickley, which bowed to North Catholic for the second time since the latter moved down from Class AA, still needs one win in its last two section games to secure one of two available playoff berths.

An 18-3 tear by the Trojans through the first quarter effectively put this one out of reach.  Motley was held off the board, while another junior forward, Ryan Lewis, who led North Catholic with 15 points and eight rebounds, was one of three starters to score double figures.  He was also one of five Trojans to hit a first-quarter field goal.

“I’ve been talking to the team about a common thread, and establishing an identity.  In the past, it’s been all about defense, and being patient,” Long said.  “I think they’ve bought into it, and I think you saw the defensive ability and intensity we can bring to the floor.”

“We always seem to find the gap in the [other team’s] defense,” Lewis added.  “We’ve got excellent ball-handlers on this team, and we just told them to take any shot they can, and we’d get the rebounds.  That’s how we score.”

Motley scored seven of Sewickley’s nine in the second quarter, including five points from the foul line.  Junior guard Brandt Gribbin, who finished with ten to go with four assists, converted a couple opportunities to ensure the Panthers didn’t undo the Trojans’ early accomplishments, and North Catholic led comfortably at the half, 27-14.

Sewickley Academy tried again to slow down the game in the second half, but North Catholic continued to outwork the visitors under the basket on both ends of the floor.  Lewis would drain 11 the rest of the way, and sophomore forward Dan Savulchak added six of his 11 on the night while finishing with six rebounds.

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“Having Danny and Ryan around the basket like that…as talented as [Sewickley Academy’s] backcourt is, the game was still going to be won or lost with their success in the paint,” Long said.

“Me and the other big men feel like we can take on anything down low,” Lewis agreed.  “It’s a strong suit of our team.”

Motley did a good job taking what North Catholic gave him but, thanks to the Trojans’ aforementioned defense, didn’t get any help from his teammates.  The Panthers’ second-highest scorer was Barret Fowkes with four points.

By contrast, Lewis and North Catholic did an even better job picking apart one of the top defensive units in Class A.

“We’re trying to build our chemistry, and it’s not there yet, but it’s coming along slowly,” Lewis said.  “Last time we only beat this team by four, so we wanted to come out and make a statement.”

The statement seems to be, bring on the Royals.

“We didn’t give them everything we had in the last game, including myself,” Lewis said of the Trojans’ Jan. 21 setback.  “We want to show them what North Catholic’s got.”

(UPDATE: Sewickley Academy has clinched a playoff berth with a win over Trinity Christian, while North Catholic kept further pace with Vincentian with a win over Aquinas Academy.)

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