They say big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and Steel Valley’s Makhai Valentine is as big time as they come.
If you still required any further proof of that before Thursday night, Valentine’s heroic winning dagger to the hearts of the Seton LaSalle faithful should provide all the evidence you need.
In a must-see matchup featuring two of the top players in the WPIAL in Valentine and Rebels guard Connor Spratt, the star seniors went blow-for-blow throughout a thrilling fourth quarter that came down to the final moments. With the Ironmen leading by one and less than 10 seconds to play, Spratt calmly knocked down a go-ahead jumper near the baseline to give himself 33 points and give Seton LaSalle a one-point lead.
Needing to take it the length of the court with only six seconds on the clock, Valentine received an inbounds pass and split two Rebels defenders before crossing halfcourt, then took two more steps while nearly losing control of his handle before gathering the ball and firing up an off-balance 3-point shot at the buzzer.
Pandemonium ensued after the 56-54 victory as players and students mobbed Valentine on the court while he screamed in celebration to anybody who would listen — “I told you!” The incredible game-winning shot gave Valentine 37 points in the game, right above his season average of 36.6 ppg.
“It was a long six seconds,” said Steel Valley interim coach Lauren Varcelli, who is filling in for the suspended Dale Chapman. “Makhai called for it in the timeout, and I trust him with the ball. He puts in the work during practice, after practice on his own, so I had full faith in him that he was going to knock it down.”
Although Seton LaSalle coach Mark Walsh and several Rebels players yelled for a travel on the play, no call came from the officials after the made 3-point shot. After the game, Walsh tipped his cap to Valentine rather than complain about the no-call.
“What a tremendous basketball game,” Walsh said. “We knew he was going to get the ball. We did the best job we could on defense. … We had a couple guys with a hand in his face. What a tremendous individual play.
“It’s unfortunate that someone had to lose that game tonight.”
The win sends top-seeded Steel Valley to the Class 3A semifinals, where they will meet No. 5 Deer Lakes Monday for a spot in the WPIAL championship.
“I’ll give credit where credit is due. I think we did a great job defensively, and he made a good shot,” Spratt said. “[My go-ahead shot] was a great moment. I just wish I could have hit it with zero seconds left on the clock instead.”
Valentine came out on fire in the first quarter, scoring at will despite being constantly double-teamed and face-guarded by Seton LaSalle’s defense. He banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make it a 19-9 Steel Valley lead going into the second, and he was just getting started.
The Ironmen continued to lead throughout the second quarter, but the Rebels began making a rally to cut the deficit to 26-20 midway through the quarter. Steel Valley then answered with an 8-0 run before taking a 34-24 lead into the half.
“You live for these moments,” Varcelli said. “It’s almost like our ‘March Madness.’ Anything can happen.”
Seton LaSalle stormed out of the break on a 12-3 run while showing a ton of effort and intensity on both ends of the floor, and all of a sudden, Steel Valley saw its lead shrink from 10 to 1. Two free throws by Spratt 13 seconds into the fourth quarter gave the Rebels their first lead of the game, 41-40.
“He’s a great player,” Valentine said of Spratt. “Two great players playing each other, that’s what we showcased. I’m pretty sure we just put the city on notice.”
With his team desperately in need of a spark, Valentine answered by knocking down a 3-pointer while drawing a foul, completing the 4-point play to put the Ironmen back on top, 44-43. Valentine then rejected a shot by Spratt on the other end, but Spratt got the ball back and converted on the second chance to cut Steel Valley’s lead to 48-45.
A 3-point play by Valentine with just under three minutes left made it 51-47, then Cole Starrett countered with a huge 3-pointer from the corner to cut the deficit to 53-52 with 1:28 to play. After another massive block by Valentine on a layup attempt by Spratt sent the ball out of bounds with 20.9 seconds remaining, Spratt hit his clutch go-ahead shot to make it a 54-53 lead for Seton LaSalle with only six seconds on the clock.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“I said, ‘Just give me the ball, and I promise you, I’m going to score,” Valentine said. “I didn’t know if it was going to be a 2 or a 3, but I said I’m going to go score, and that’s what I did.
“I couldn’t really see the hoop, but once I elevated, I knew it was going to drop.”
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