Quick — which team is playing the best basketball in Class 6A right now?
A week or so ago, Central Catholic would have been a popular choice. The Vikings had won three consecutive games against New Castle, Butler and Lincoln Park, but they just lost by 16 points at North Allegheny. New Castle looked like an easy choice early this season, but a foot injury to leading scorer Isaiah Boice has taken the wind out of the Red Hurricanes’ sails for the time being. Meanwhile, Butler, Baldwin and Upper St. Clair are playing good basketball and heating up at the right time. As of right now, though, the clear answer to that question has to be Mt. Lebanon.
Yes, the same Blue Devils who have no starters taller than 6 feet 2, a leading scorer who is only 5-8 and no players averaging more than 13 points per game — that Mt. Lebanon.
Don’t look now, but the Blue Devils are off to a 5-0 start in section play after a 62-41 win Tuesday at Canon-McMillan — and don’t be fooled by their 10-4 overall record. Their four losses came against Class 4A stalwart Laurel Highlands (64-59 Dec. 2 in the season opener), Class 5A contender Chartiers Valley (66-51, Dec. 16), and two out-of-state powerhouses in Boyd Anderson, Fla. (50-45, Dec. 19) and Gaston Day School, N.C. (66-61, Dec. 29).
“I think these guys are a special group,” Mt. Lebanon coach Joe David said. “Are we there yet? I don’t think so. I think we have to continue to get better over the next few weeks, and I think we’re doing that right now.”
Since the start of the new year, the Blue Devils have been nearly flawless, stringing together five consecutive section wins against Baldwin, Hempfield, Upper St. Clair, Norwin and Canon-McMillan. So how are they getting it done without a big-name player or go-to scorer on the roster? Well, several reasons — depth, hustle, balance, unselfishness, a relentless full-court press and a stable of lethal 3-point shooters.
And of course, it doesn’t hurt having a veteran coach with 386 career wins and three WPIAL titles running the show.
“We’re a 3-point shooting team. If we make a lot of shots, we can compete with anybody,” David said. “We don’t have one featured guy. I think for the first six or seven games, we had six different leading scorers. Any given night a kid could have 20-some points. … I really enjoy having a team like that. It’s hard for the other team really to focus on one guy. We don’t know who it’s going to be. It’s a nice luxury to have.”
With only one returning starter in 5-8 senior guard Lucas Garofoli, expectations weren’t exactly through the roof for the Blue Devils going into this season. But things certainly have changed in a hurry, and Garofoli is one of the main reasons why Mt. Lebanon now is the front-runner to capture its seventh consecutive section title — and potentially much more.
“It’s definitely on my mind,” Garofoli said. “We don’t really want to be the team to break [the streak], but it feels good to go out and start 5-0.”
Garofoli leads the team with an average of 13 points and a total of 39 made 3-pointers this season, but he’s far from the only one with a smooth shooting touch. Michael Pfeuffer and Tanner Donati each average 10 points and Nate Girod and Brody Barber average 8 apiece. Along with Garofoli, Girod (27 3s), Pfeuffer (22 3s) and Barber (15 3s) each have at least 15 made 3-pointers through the first 14 games.
And although the Blue Devils are willing to live and die by the 3-pointer, they do have many other ways to win a game — and it all starts with their suffocating defense that puts the pressure on opponents from the moment they inbound the ball. Garofoli and Girod are the front men on Mt. Lebanon’s full-court press defense that is known for generating tons of turnovers and creating fast-break points the other way.
“Being the shortest player can have its perks,” Garofoli said. “You see the press we do, it really helps me get my shots and steals.”
Despite being the shortest player on the court more often than not, Garofoli has asserted himself as one of the most dangerous guards in Class 6A. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in effort, tenacity and experience — and you won’t find many better shooters in the WPIAL.
Garofoli still vividly remembers being on the bench for the 2020 WPIAL championship at Petersen Events Center, along with fellow seniors Donati, Pfeuffer and J.P. Walters. All four are determined to get back to where their careers started as freshmen, and this time, to come out on top.
“I think about it a lot,” Garofoli said. “I look back and see what that [2019-20] team did, how hard they played, and just try to do what they did.”
The Blue Devils made it to back-to-back WPIAL title games in 2019 and 2020, winning the first and losing the second, but they haven’t made it back since. Before they can worry about playing at “The Pete,” though, the goal of a seventh consecutive section title remains their primary focus — and archrival Upper St. Clair still stands in their way. The Blue Devils won a double-overtime thriller at home in the first meeting, 74-69, but David knows the Panthers will be out for revenge Feb. 3 when the teams clash at their place. He’s also well aware that the section title will most likely be at stake.
After nearly 400 wins in 22 years while coaching in more big games than he can remember, David insists the feeling of being in those types of atmospheres doesn’t get old. And there’s nothing he would want more than a seventh WPIAL championship appearance and to compete for the ultimate prize — not for himself, but for this group of players.
“I have a few pictures in my office up, and they’re all of my guys smiling after winning WPIAL championships,” David said. “That’s what you play for. You play for these moments where these guys can really see the fruits of their labor and finally understand why they did it.
“I like these guys. I wouldn’t trade them for any other team.”