Vinnie Cugini has been putting up huge scoring numbers this season as continues his pursuit of the WPIAL all-time scoring record.
Cugini produced yet another giant performance Tuesday night, but it was the numbers his team’s opponent churned out that were the most eye-popping of the game.
They were also enough to hand Cugini and his teammates their first loss this season.
Imani Christian connected on 14 3-pointers, saw six players score in double figures and surpassed the century mark in scoring on the way to an emphatic 110-77 victory against visiting Aquinas Academy.
It was the 18th consecutive section win for Imani Christian (5-5, 3-0), its most recent defeat coming nearly two years to the day. The Saints moved into sole possession of first place in WPIAL Class 1A Section 3. Aquinas Academy, which won its first 11 games for the first time in program history, fell to 11-1 overall and 2-1 in section. Only four unbeaten teams remain in the WPIAL (Lincoln Park, South Allegheny, Bishop Canevin and Union) after Aquinas Academy and two others fell Tuesday.
Cugini, a senior guard and Pitt-Johnstown recruit, poured in a game-high 40 points and is averaging 44.5 a game this season, which ranks among the highest averages in the country. Cugini now has 2,612 career points, putting him just 226 away from Tom Pipkins’ WPIAL record.
R.J. Sledge scored 17 points, led Imani Christian’s 3-point assault with five, and also added 13 assists. The 110 points were the most scored by a WPIAL or City League team this season. A running clock went into effect when the Saints saw their lead balloon to 30 points in the fourth quarter.
“It was real fun,” said Sledge, a sophomore who won WPIAL and PIAA titles last season at Bishop Canevin. “Our coaches just let us shoot. They let us play. Whenever we get up shots, they’re going to fall because this our gym. We don’t miss here.”
The Saints missed a few Tuesday, but there weren’t a whole lot. Imani Christian’s gym is one of the smallest in the WPIAL, and the Saints turned this game into a track meet. With athletic guards such as Sledge and Dame Givner, and standout big guys Alier Maluk (6 feet 11) and Virgil Hall (6-8), the Saints are hard to beat at their gym, which is in the East Hills section of Pittsburgh.
Aquinas Academy coach George Yokitis knows all about bandbox gyms. When he coached at old Vincentian High School, the Royals had one of the smallest courts around. Yokitis’ teams were known for their uptempo play and excellent guard play. Imani Christian has that and more.
“Our floor was this size. It impacts the game a lot, particularly if you’re real fast or real big. And they’re both,” Yokitis said.
Nate Brazil came off the bench to lead Imani Christian with 20 points. Sledge and Hall added 17, Givner and Avery Wesley 16, and Maluk 14. Maluk, ranked by recruiting services as one of the top sophomores in the country, was a little gimpy after an injury to his heel last week. But the story of this game was Imani Christian’s guard play and outside shooting.
“I thought our guards were really solid,” Imani Christian coach Omar Foster said. “What’s most impressive is we had about 33 assists. Our team shared the ball well, so I was happy with that.”
In addition to Sledge’s five 3-pointers, Brazil knocked down four, Deston Hubbard two and Wesley one. And even Hall, one of the biggest players in the WPIAL, converted two.
“Boy, did they shoot well tonight. Oh my goodness,” said Yokitis, whose team lost to the Saints by scores of 92-76 and 76-71 a season ago.
Cugini played very well, but with his team trailing by double digits most of the game, it was sort of a “quiet 40.” Cugini was efficient, going 13 of 19 from the field and 13 of 14 from the free-throw line. He made one of the Crusaders’ four 3-pointers. Cugini produced even though he was the obvious focus of Imani Christian’s defensive game plan.
“We didn’t want him to shoot,” Sledge said. “We didn’t want him to shoot at all.”
Foster said he once again came away impressed with the Aquinas Academy star, who is on pace to break Pipkins’ 29-year-old record later this month.
“I had a chance to watch him since he was a freshman,” Foster said. “Good kid. Good scorer. Good mentality. Plays hard no matter what the score is. I like Vinnie.”
Josh Schlemmer also scored in double figures for the Crusaders, finishing with 15 points.
It was a much-needed win for Imani Christian, which boasts one of the most talented lineups in the area. The Saints hope to catch fire after four narrow losses to larger schools (Lincoln Park, Devon Prep, Allderdice and North Allegheny) and a 20-point loss Sunday to a team from Ohio.
“It’s a really big win,” Foster said. “They were undefeated. We needed this win. We were coming off a tough loss in Cleveland. We played a really good team, but we felt we dropped the ball a little bit. To bounce back with a win is always a victory for us.”