By Matt Popchock


Section title races in girls’ basketball are getting particularly intense in Beaver County. On Thursday night, the number of remaining unbeaten teams dwindled after a potentially important upset in Class AAA.

New Castle (3-0, 6-3) hit the road and edged Hopewell 68-64 to take over the AAA-Sec. 2 lead and end the Vikings’ (3-1, 9-1) nine-game winning streak. They’re the two highest-scoring teams in the classification, and the way the Red Hurricane humbled Hopewell’s defense, which has allowed just over 34 points per game, was impressive.

What was even more impressive is the way they gradually shut down Hopewell junior Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, one of the premier players in the WPIAL. Walker-Kimbrough had a game-high 28 points, but only scored nine in the second half. Meanwhile, Christina Talbert helped New Castle pull ahead by scoring 14 of her team-best 22 in the fourth quarter.

With that loss by the Vikings, the number of perfect girls’ basketball teams in the WPIAL now stands at seven, which equals the number of remaining winless teams. To be specific, Oakland Catholic, Burrell, Greensburg Central Catholic, Bentworth, Seton-LaSalle, Vincentian Academy, and Fort Cherry have all run the table so far.

If that group stays consistent, we’ll see some fresh faces at the Palumbo Center in a couple months. Of those aforementioned teams, only Seton-LaSalle and Fort Cherry made it to the district finals last year, with the Rebels winning WPIAL gold in Class AA.

There is a little more disparity in the boys’ standings right now. Only five boys’ basketball teams remain unbeaten: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, New Castle, and Chartiers Valley, along with defending WPIAL Class AA champion Monessen and defending Class AAA champ Montour.

Montour hasn’t been tested much through its first four games of the season, but the Spartans get a shot at Class AAA bragging rights when they meet New Castle Jan. 21 in a Coaches vs. Cancer event at Geneva College’s Metheny Fieldhouse, and they even get to measure themselves against Chartiers Valley–which looks like the team to beat in Quad-A–Jan. 28 at RMU in the Pittsburgh Basketball Classic.

In contrast, eight boys’ squads are still looking for their first win of the 2011-12 season, including Clairton, which is just two games into its belated campaign due to football commitments. Coming off a playoff berth, the Bears “played up” against Fox Chapel and Montour in the Montour Holiday Tournament, and they open Class A Section 4 play Friday at 7:30 against visiting St. Joseph, which is usually one of the top teams in its classification.

Led by talented guard Mike Connelly, the Spartans are off to a nice 5-2 start, and they pose an interesting test for a Clairton team playing without Trenton Coles, a Pitt football recruit who is expected to miss basketball season after tearing multiple ligaments in his knee during the school’s record-setting PIAA Football Championship victory.

Most eyes, however, will probably be on boys’ and girls’ Section 2 in both Quad-A and Triple-A Friday.

In boys’ Class AAAA Plum (2-0, 7-2) visits Woodland Hills (2-1, 6-2) with the section lead on the line Friday at 7:30. The surprising Wolverines left some coal in the stocking of defending WPIAL champion Gateway right before Christmas with a dramatic last-second win, and they’re getting quality minutes from football stars Shakim Alonzo and Jaimire Dutrieulle. The focal point of the Mustangs’ offense will be Cornell recruit Nolan Cressler, one of the top point guards in the area, who some say has added an inside game to complement his outside game.

In girls’ Class AAAA Franklin Regional (3-0, 7-1) travels to Gateway (2-0, 5-1) for a 6:00 tip Friday with first place on the line. Franklin Regional has won seven in a row overall, while Gateway is undefeated against District 7 opponents and owns a win over New Castle. These are two of the top five offenses in Quad-A, averaging 62 points per game apiece, but the one to watch is Gateway senior guard Destiny Brown, a Baylor recruit who will likely chase the WPIAL individual scoring crown this season.

In boys’ Class AAA New Castle (2-0, 9-0) will put that aforementioned perfect record on the line when it travels to Central Valley (3-0, 7-3) for a first-place showdown at 7:30. After licking their wounds from that loss to Beaver Falls in CCBC’s “Golden Dome,” the Warriors bounced back with a rout of West Allegheny, and they possess a strong perimeter offense keyed by Curtis Lewis and Mike Sims.

Not to be outdone, the Red Hurricane’s offense has shifted into Category 5 mode. They are the highest scoring team in the district with nearly 78 points per game, and they manhandled West Middlesex of District 10, which handed Beaver Falls its only loss of the season. New Castle has won every game by double digits, including decisions over Quad-A Seneca Valley and Class AAA silver medalist South Fayette.

By the way, there is one other common thread shared by this team with Beaver Falls: each boasts a 1,000-point scorer. Just to refresh your memory, Sheldon Jeter got his during an impressive performance for the Tigers at the C.J. Betters RBA Holiday Classic, while Eggleston, the No. 3 point guard in the WPIAL according to Steve Brodzinski of the Pittsburgh Basketball Report, reached the plateau Dec. 16 against West A.

(Follow me on Twitter: