Going into Thursday’s WPIAL Class 1A championship game between No. 1 Imani Christian and No. 2 Union, the debate about public vs. private schools competing in the WPIAL playoffs had never raged louder.
Plenty of chatter made its way across social media in the buildup to the game, with some questioning whether Imani would have many fans show up to the championship game at Petersen Events Center. Both sides wound up bringing a full contingent of supporters, but it was the Saints who had the last laugh after a 64-41 blowout win. Imani outscored the Scotties by a score of 40-20 in the second half, cruising to victory while fans serenaded the players with chants and cheers from the stands.
“You have journalists sometimes who say things like, ‘We don’t have a crowd,’ ” Saints coach Omar Foster said. “We’ve been playing in big crowds all year. We’ve played in big games since the beginning of the season. … We’re prepared for this.”
Junior forward Virgil Hall summed up the feelings of Imani’s players after the game, shouting to anyone who would listen during the Saints’ emotionally charged celebration.
“Who said we don’t have pride?“
Hall finished with 11 points and five rebounds, while heralded 6-11 sophomore Alier Maluk tallied 5 points with 10 rebounds and 5 blocks. Sophomore guard Dame Givner led Imani with 17 points to go with 7 rebounds and 4 assists, and fellow sophomore R.J. Sledge finished with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
“It’s one step at a time, but I’m getting eight [gold medals],” Sledge said after the game, referencing his pair of WPIAL titles to go with a PIAA title from last season. “Four WPIALs and four states.”
Senior guard Matt Stanley led all scorers with 19 points for the Scotties, while his younger brother, Lucas, tacked on 15 in the defeat. Their father, Union coach Matt Stanley, didn’t mince words after the game when discussing the way the two teams were assembled. Both Givner and Sledge transferred to Imani before the season after breakout freshman years, with Givner transferring from Obama and Sledge coming from Bishop Canevin.
“I don’t know if it was the third quarter or back in September when they got more guys in,” Stanley said. “I can’t stand it. … But what can you do? They’re not cheating, but it’s not fair. It’s not right.”
Despite the lopsided final score, the game was extremely competitive in the first half as Imani built an early 8-5 lead. Lucas Stanley quickly tied things up with his second 3-pointer of the game, then Maluk skied into the air for back-to-back blocks on the other end, leading to a pair of transition layups by Givner and Avery Wesley.
After a 3-point play by Matt Stanley late in the first quarter, Lucas Stanley buried his third 3-pointer to tie it up at 14-14 early in the second. The Saints then took a 19-14 lead, but Matt Stanley answered with a 3 of his own to cut it to 19-17 midway through the quarter. A big put-back slam by Maluk then gave Imani a bit more cushion with a 23-19 lead going into the break.
Union came out strong to start the second half, even briefly taking a 27-25 lead after another 3-pointer by Lucas Stanley. But that’s when the Saints turned their defense up a notch, putting together a 12-0 run with several takeaways leading to transition baskets. Wesley knocked down a 3-pointer late in the third quarter, then a dazzling layup by Givner followed by a fastbreak dunk by Maluk made it 45-31 Imani entering the fourth.
“I yelled at them in the locker room that we needed to get our things together,” Foster said. “Our identity is defense, and we feel if we play really good defense, we can get stops and then get out in transition. That’s when we’re playing at our best.”
Back-to-back buckets by Givner to start the final quarter extended the Saints’ lead to 50-31, and they continued to cause havoc on the defensive end while holding the Scotties well below their season average of 67.6 points per game. Union shot only 5 for 26 (19.2%) from the field in the second half, compared to 12 for 17 (70.6%) for Imani.
Despite capturing the first WPIAL title in school history, though, the Saints insist they have bigger goals in mind.
“I think this is a stepping stone to our ultimate goal,” Hall said. “Our ultimate goal is to be state champions.”
For WPIAL postseason basketball brackets, results and schedules, go here: