During his remarkable four-year run to becoming South Allegheny’s all-time leading scorer, Bryce Epps has hit his fair share of winners and buzzer-beaters — so many that he has earned the moniker, “Big Shot Bryce.”
On Monday night, though, it was unsung junior guard Jeston Beatty who etched his name into Gladiators lore with a 3-pointer in the final seconds of a thrilling 59-57 WPIAL Class 4A first-round victory against Beaver (17-5). The clutch shot ensured at least one more high school game for Epps, who went out victoriously in his final game in his home gym. Epps finished with a game-high 23 points, while junior forward Michael Michalski added 14 and Beatty finished with 13.
“I’m still trying to process it, to be honest,” South Allegheny coach Tony DiCenzo said. “Big moments call for special players to make plays, and Jeston stepped up in a crucial moment for us to knock that shot down. I’m really proud of all of our guys.”
The win sets up a Class 4A quarterfinal clash between the Gladiators (19-4) and top-seeded Lincoln Park (22-1). Many view the Leopards as the clear favorite to win the WPIAL title, but don’t expect any of DiCenzo’s bunch to be intimidated.
“You’ve got to face whoever is next up,” DiCenzo said. “I like our guys. We’re going to come in and compete and give them everything they have.”
Anyone wondering whether Epps would bring his best stuff for his final home game had their questions answered emphatically in the game’s opening minutes. The star senior drained three consecutive 3-pointers to open the game, and he nearly had a fourth that just rimmed out. Bryce’s younger brother Cameron Epps and Michalski then took turns knocking down back-to-back 3s to make it an early 15-7 lead for South Allegheny.
After the Gladiators carried a 17-9 lead into the second quarter, Beaver began making a run thanks to some hot shooting from Aiden Townsend, who scored 11 in the first half. But every time the Bobcats inched closer, Bryce Epps would make another big play to answer — be it a chase-down block, nifty assist or big-time shot. A buzzer-beating layup by Epps made it a 36-27 lead for South Allegheny going into the break.
“I knew if I came out and set the tone, then my teammates would follow,” Epps said. “I’m very happy for them and the way they played. They helped me out a lot.”
Refusing to go away quietly, Beaver surged out of the break for a quick 6-0 run to start the third quarter. This time, it was Cameron Epps who quieted the Bobcats with a 3-pointer off an assist from Bryce. The Gladiators stretched their lead to 13 late in the third, but a 4-0 run to end the quarter for Beaver made it 48-39 heading into the fourth.
A handful of missed free throws by South Allegheny allowed the Bobcats to creep back into the game early in the final quarter, as Beaver used a balanced scoring attack to cut the deficit to 51-46 with around five minutes remaining. Back-to-back buckets by Alexander Tomalski followed by a trio of free throws by Brady Mayo then tied it at 53-53 with 2:43 to play.
Two free throws by Epps put South Allegheny back on top, 55-53, with 1:50 remaining, then Beatty added one more with 1:23 left. A nice assist from Sawyer Butler to his younger brother Ty for an easy layup cut the Gladiators’ lead to 56-55, then Sawyer Butler converted a layup with just under 20 seconds remaining to give the Bobcats the first lead of the game, 57-56.
Rather than calling a timeout, DiCenzo chose to let Bryce Epps do what he does best. And this time, instead of knocking down the big shot, he made the the right pass. And although it wasn’t in the cards for the younger Epps to be the hero in this showdown as his 3-point attempt bounced off the rim, Beatty was there to save the day — and South Allegheny’s season.
“They always key on Bryce, but we have a lot of other players,” Beatty said. “We’re all capable of shooting. … Even before the game, I’m not going to lie — I said I was going to hit a buzzer-beater.
“It came off the hand very weird. I was like, ‘Oh no,’ but it went in.”
For WPIAL postseason basketball brackets, results and schedules, go here: https://www.wpial.org/2023-wpial-basketball-tournament-central/