By Matt Popchock


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‘Tis the season for tournament basketball–holiday tournaments, that is. A number of them will commence throughout the WPIAL this week, but the annual C.J. Betters RBA Holiday Classic at the Community College of Beaver County will likely draw more attention than most.

Some of the top talent in the county will get to square off one last time before going full steam ahead into section play after Sunday, and we’ll also get a glance at some of the most exceptional boys’ basketball players in the district.

Hopewell (0-1, 2-3) opens the tournament at 4:00 Tuesday afternoon when it takes on Cumberland Valley (2-4), a Quad-A team from District 3. Rushel Shell, fresh off his coronation as an All-PIAA football honoree and Post-Gazette Football Player of the Year, has been logging some serious time in the gym as well, leading the Vikings with 30 points at guard in a recent AAA-Sec. 2 loss to Blackhawk. They’ve also been getting quality minutes from 6’3″ guard Dave Warren, who led a recent win over New Brighton with ten important points, and swingman Nolan Harmotto.

Last season’s WPIAL Class AAA runner-up, South Fayette, will be on display when the Lions (2-0, 4-2) match wits with Aliquippa (1-1, 2-2) shortly after 5:30 Tuesday. South Fayette recently had a four-game winning streak snapped with an 80-65 loss to New Castle, one of the teams it beat during its playoff run. Sophomore guard Zack Beck led the Lions with 18 that night, and the Quips will also want to watch out for shifty two-guard Zach Challingsworth, who chipped in nine points and seven boards in a recent win over AAA-Sec. 1 rival Trinity.

Aliquippa is coming off a rare down year for its boys’ basketball program, but defensively the Quips have been sharper in the early stages of the 2011-12 campaign, yielding just 47 points per game. They began the season by losing to Hopewell, but they’re coming off a nice 70-52 triumph over Central Valley in which Jared Moore led the charge with 26 points and ten rebounds. Point guard Xavier Coleman has also been shooting well, and he had 21 in that game.

Speaking of the Warriors (2-0, 5-2), they’re playing in the penultimate game of Tuesday evening. The action really gets interesting when Central Valley tips off against Highlands (1-1, 1-4) shortly after 7:00 in a rematch of a first round playoff game back in February that was won by Central Valley, 70-57, at North Hills.

Central Valley has come back to Earth a bit after winning its first four, but sophomore guard Mike Sims is showing some promise. He led his team with 20 against the Quips, and backcourt buddy Dan Steffine, who powered the Warriors with 21 points in a recent AAA-Sec. 2 win over Ambridge, is also an offensive force. Defensively they have their work cut out on Tuesday against one of the WPIAL’s elite players, Highlands guard and Drake recruit Micah Mason.

Mason led the district with 34 points per game last season, and he entered the 2011-12 season with 1,583 career points and 259 career three-pointers. But Central Valley held him to 17 points and a 4-of-12 shooting performance when these teams last met by using a “diamond-and-one” defense, and it’ll be interesting to see if head coach Brandon Ambrose uses it against Mason again.

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Highlands is coming off a 70-60 loss to AAA-Sec. 1 rival Valley. Mason delivered 64 points, the second-best single-game performance in WPIAL boys’ basketball history, in a win over the Vikings Jan. 24, but this time he managed “only” a game-high 36. He fired in 31 in Highlands’ lone win thus far, a 65-38 decision at Burrell, but he alone hasn’t been able to offset his team’s defensive struggles. The Golden Rams have allowed over 65 points per game.

But if you want to see even more offensive fireworks, look no further than the nightcap, which matches two-time WPIAL Class A runner-up Lincoln Park against Class AA favorite Beaver Falls in a game scheduled for an 8:30 tip on Tuesday night.

The Leopards (5-1) feature 6’10” Devontae Watson, a Temple recruit and top-notch defender who has helped them form one of the most lethal forward walls in the classification. He’s been getting help from fellow senior Trey Cosack, who led the team with 27 points in a recent win over Quad-A Pine-Richland that extended the Leopards’ win streak to four, and sophomore Ryan Skrovanko, who scored 29 against Ellwood City. Lincoln Park averages 60.7 points per game.

One x-factor is whether Watson’s recent ankle injury, which kept him out of that victory over Ellwood City, limits his playing time at all. Hopefully that is not the case, because watching him compete against 6’8″ Beaver Falls shooting guard Sheldon Jeter, who promises to be one of the WPIAL’s most recruited players this season, ought to be a treat.

The Tigers (1-0, 5-1) have racked up five wins in a row following a season-opening loss to West Middlesex in the New Castle Tip-Off Tournament, and Jeter has been the chief reason why. He pulled down ten rebounds and led B.F. with 29 points in an 85-53 rout of Ambridge, and contributed a game-high 33 points against Quaker Valley in its AA-Sec. 6 opener. Elijah Cottrill and Zach Miller have also supplied the Tigers with strong minutes in their backcourt.

Hopewell, Cumberland Valley, South Fayette, and Aliquippa are competing in the Blue Division of the tournament, while Highlands, Central Valley, Lincoln Park, and Beaver Falls are competing in the Gray Division.

There will be divisional championships, but no outright tournament champion, because according to tournament organizer Dave Ambrose, teams generally want to save room on their non-section schedule.

Check back with the “Mr. High School Sports” blog later for more on the C.J. Betters RBA Holiday Classic.

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