By Matt Popchock


I would like to respectfully submit my candidacy for one of Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier’s annual “Trite Trophies.”

Defense wins championships. There, I said it. Quite frankly, I’m surprised I was able to hold it in beyond the title.

Gene, if you’re paying any attention, I’ve got some folks perfectly willing to second, third, and fourth my self-nomination…

The 2012 WPIAL Basketball Championships, particularly on day two, were dominated by defense. As those teams try to reverse the fortunes of the previous PIAA basketball tournament, which saw only the Mount Lebanon girls leave Penn State with state gold, it’s the thing that might do the trick.

I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me as they followed the scoreboard at the Palumbo Center during the boys’ Class AA district final. Beaver Falls, led by D-1 prospect Sheldon Jeter, was the most athletic team I had seen out of that classification all season, and Monessen looked to be the only team capable of generating enough offense to put down the Tigers.

But Beaver Falls might also be the most improved team defensively in Class AA; it was the least scored-upon one during the regular season. As a result, this game didn’t turn into the track meet most of us probably anticipated. Beaver Falls cleaned the glass, led by Jeter’s double-double and held Monessen to 23% shooting for the game (29% in the first half).

The Greyhounds, which averaged a respectable 65 points per game entering the weekend, managed just nine field goals–two in the second half.

Head coach Doug Biega wasn’t flustered, and he didn’t let his team lose patience. After his Tigers posted an ugly 46-27 win for their first WPIAL title since the unforgettable 2005 contest, he contended that great defense on both sides is predictable when two powerful forces collide.

Perhaps he’s expecting a similar game against Lakeview of District 10 (Region 2) Saturday at 3:00 at North Allegheny High School. Beaver Falls had better be ready to repeat its historically stingy performance if that is the case, because the Sailors are allowing just 37.3 points per game.

The South Park girls, later that night, put on a remotely more impressive display in the forecourt. But overshadowed by a 35-point effort from WPIAL scoring champ Shatori Walker-Kimbrough that suspended disbelief is the fact that Hopewell limited the Eagles to 28.9% shooting in its 50-34 Class AAA title win.

The Lady Vikings yielded 40 points per contest in the regular season and have held each of their WPIAL playoff opponents under that. And yet, Walker-Kimbrough, who added to her legend by gutting it out last Saturday through an injured thumb, may have to dig deeper against Mercyhurst Prep at North Hills High School Saturday at 4:30. The Lakers dominated District 10 Region 6 by matching Hopewell’s 24 wins and have allowed under 30 points per game.

As soon as those two finalists cleared the floor, the house was full for the boys’ Quad-A affair between Gateway and Pittsburgh Central Catholic, each a double-digit seed, each deceptively skilled. But someone should have told Chuck Crummie to go to the diocese for an extra miracle, because the Gators were a holy terror in the backcourt.

The team’s lanky leaders, Barnett Harris and Tyler Scott, clobbered Central underneath, combining for over 20 of their team’s rebounds, and the Gators held the Vikings to barely over 34% from the field in a low-scoring but highly commendable 49-39 title defense. None of the Vikings reached double figures, and leading scorer Lincoln Davis couldn’t buy a bucket till the fourth quarter.

Gateway, the No. 20 team in Pennsylvania according to MaxPreps, has realized its own potential in time for a PIAA playoff rematch with Seneca Valley Saturday at 6:00 at North Allegheny. The Raiders, who beat Mifflin County in a play-in game, bowed to the Gators, 60-57, in the WPIAL Class AAAA Quartefinals after stunning Mount Lebanon.

The two-time district champs have averaged over four blocks and five steals per game, and they have averaged around 23 rebounds per game. Gateway, entering Saturday, has been stronger off the defensive glass by almost a two-to-one ratio.

Meanwhile, the New Castle boys have already become just the 11th team in the modern era of WPIAL boys’ basketball to taste District 7 gold without losing a single game all year. They led the WPIAL in regular season play with a whopping 81 points per game, but head coach Ralph Blundo knows there’s more than meets the eye to the eye of the Red Hurricane.

His team, featuring the dazzling backcourt duo of Corey Eggleston and cousin Shawn Anderson, was prepared to adjust its style and roll up its sleeves against a Hampton squad that had shot lights out to dethrone defending WPIAL Class AAA champion Montour.

The Talbots are known for grinding opponents down with their defense, but last weekend, New Castle beat them at their own game by holding them to a 38.2% clip, including 2-of-13 from three-point distance, in a 57-44 victory.

It’s hard to imagine a head-turning result in Saturday’s state playoff opener versus Hickory of District 10 (Region 6) Friday at 7:00 at Butler Area High School. New Castle is what its record says it is, and I can’t see them showing the fledgling Hornets any mercy after already blasting Sharon, another District 10 team, in its regular season finale. The magic surrounding Blundo’s ’11-’12 squad will last at least one more round, and furthermore, I’m predicting they leave Happy Valley happy.

And what of the Lady Blue Devils? MaxPreps’ No. 2 girls’ team in the state begins defending its PIAA crown, fittingly, against State College at Chartiers Valley High School Friday at 7:30.

Bobbi Baker lit them up for 25. The rest of Oakland Catholic shot 34.6% in Lebo’s 58-49 win, its third WPIAL championship in four years. Once again, a team had been beaten on The Bluff at its own game.

State College has averaged 53, which mirrors OC’s offensive output. Mount Lebanon has allowed 38 per night, which mirrors the defensive efficiency of the WPIAL runners-up.

Gene, you can go ahead and send that check to my home address.

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