It wasn’t a home game, but Vinnie Cugini had an opportunity Tuesday to break one of the WPIAL’s most storied records less than a mile away from his family’s home.
The Cuginis live in Morningside, down the road from Neighborhood Academy, located in Stanton Heights. Neighborhood Academy played host to Cugini and Aquinas Academy in what was a key section game for both teams.
Cugini, a senior who has spent the season chasing Tom Pipkins’ 30-year-old WPIAL career scoring record, had about 25 family members at the game, as well as about 25 more folks throughout the neighborhood whom Cugini’s mom, Brandi, called the “Vinnie fan club.” Some fans in the small gymnasium — Neighborhood Academy athletic director Gary Shawley said 347 tickets were sold — held signs with Cugini’s name and number. There was a large media presence, as well. Even former Steelers star Ryan Shazier was there sitting in the first row of the bleachers.
“I’m here to watch him break the record,” Shazier said, smiling, just before tip-off.
It was a little bit of a circus, which prompted Aquinas Academy’s ringleader, er, coach, George Yokitis, to pass along some thoughts onto his star player prior to the game.
Said Yokitis, “I said, ‘Be Vinnie. I know it’s hard. You see a circus like this with all the TV stations in town and all of that. But be Vinnie. Be Vinnie Cugini. The beauty of it is, you’re home. You can walk home from here. Feel like you’re home.”
For Cugini, there was no place like home Tuesday. The community showed up and Cugini showed out. Cugini converted the second of two free throws with 2:08 left in the game for what was his 2,839th career point, breaking the record held for three decades by Valley great Tom Pipkins, who collected 2,838 before graduating in 1993. Cugini finished with 33 points — which actually tied a season low — but Aquinas Academy (14-3, 3-3) fell to Neighborhood Academy (13-4, 4-3), 68-62, in a Class 1A Section 3 game.
After Cugini made the free throw — he misfired on his first attempt — the game briefly was stopped as those in attendance celebrated the accomplishment and feverishly snapped photo after photo.
For Cugini, breaking the record came with excitement and relief.
“I’m definitely a little more relieved, but I am super excited,” said Cugini, a 6-foot-2 guard and Pitt-Johnstown recruit. “I knew it was going to happen soon. A lot of people have been talking about it. There’s definitely a sigh of relief going into games now not having to worry about it.”
Cugini entered the game needing 31 points to break Pipkins’ record. Pipkins, by the way, was not in attendance. He previously said that he simply wanted Cugini “to have his moment.” Being that Cugini was averaging 45.6 points a game and poured in 55 in a win against Neighborhood Academy earlier in the month, it appeared as if Cugini breaking the record Tuesday would be a slam dunk, but that wasn’t the case.
It was a slow start for Cugini, who was limited to just four points in the first quarter. But following an “overrated” chant from the Neighborhood Academy student section, Cugini began to surge. He scored 12 in the second quarter to increase his total 16, putting him on pace to break the record. After being held to five points in the third, Cugini stood at 21 after three quarters. Then came a big 12-point fourth in which Cugini knocked down his only 3-pointer of the game and tied the record on a driving layup with 2:28 remaining. Twenty seconds later, he was fouled and went to the free-throw line for two shots.
The rest is, um, history.
Cugini was all smiles afterward as he was interviewed on camera by several news stations and reporters. He posed for countless photos with family and friends, many of whom, like Cugini, didn’t have to travel too far from home.
“If I could do it anywhere, I would obviously want to do it at Aquinas Academy,” said Cugini, “but this would be my second option. I live under a mile from here. I used to ride my bike here to work out in the summer. It’s something huge. A lot of people here are from my area and where I grew up.”
Cugini’s parents, Vince and Brandi, sat in the bleachers not far behind the Aquinas Academy bench. Both appeared excited and relieved. Brandi said she was asked by a news station to be “mic’d up” for the game but politely declined.
“Honestly, at first I was super anxious and nervous. I’m always like that, though,” Brandi said. “But once [Vinnie broke the record], I just felt a huge sense of relief. I was literally in tears. I’m glad it’s over. Now this can all go away and we can enjoy his final games. That’s all I care about.”
Vinnie Cugini said it was the most physical a team has played him in a high school game. Afterward, he had marks on his neck and arms from the physical play. Against Neighborhood Academy, Cugini had to work for everything he got. He finished 12 of 24 from the field and 8 of 18 from the free-throw line.
“It’s really remarkable,” Yokitis said. “He says all the right things. I think the reason he says it is because it’s true. He does care more about winning than this record. He does care more about his team than this record. As my parish priest used to say, ‘There’s nothing as stubborn as a fact,’ and it’s really true.”
Facts are facts, and Cugini now is the WPIAL’s all-time leading scorer. That’s a fact. When Pipkins set the record in 1993, he broke what had been a 38-year-old record set by Wampum High School great Don Hennon (2,376 points), who went on to star at Pitt after graduating from Wampum in 1955. That means that Cugini is one of only three players to hold the record in the past 68 years.
When approached by a reporter afterward, Cugini’s mom had not yet spoken to her son, but she had a pretty good idea of what she was going to tell him.
“I’m going to tell him how proud I am of him,” Brandi Cugini said. “For him, at 17 years old, to be able to do this, and with all this pressure surrounding him. He kept his cool, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Aquinas Academy, which is located in Hampton, declared that Wednesday will be “Vinnie Cugini Day” at the school. Athletic director Tom Kayda said that a special ceremony will be held at Aquinas Academy’s next home game, Wednesday against Hillel Academy or Friday against Imani Christian.
Cugini is an outstanding basketball player who doubles as an outstanding student. He has a 4.5 grade-point average and ranks among the top students in his class.
And as far as top scorers in WPIAL history go, Cugini now stands at the head of the class.
“It feels great, but I’m not done,” he said. “We obviously have a couple more games and hopefully a good playoff run, so we’ll see what the future brings.”