Chris Giles is a special education teacher, but for a few minutes Thursday night the Penn Hills coach morphed into a chemistry professor.
You could say there was a pH imbalance in the first half of the WPIAL Class 5A championship. This PH squad was clicking offensively, but the lockdown defense it typically showcases was MIA. An Indians team that had given up only 44 points a game on the season and just 40 during the playoffs had already allowed 30 to Peters Township while going into the break trailing by a point.
“Honestly, I told them to stop worrying so much about offense and play defense,” Giles said. “Be connected defensively. Make sure you talk. Stay true to our principles. Fundamentally sound. Jump to the ball. All that kind of stuff.”
Giles must be a chemistry whiz, too, as No. 2 seed Penn Hills came together in the third quarter, put its suffocating defense on display, and used its impressive athleticism to win its sixth WPIAL title and first since 2018 by defeating No. 1 Peters Township, 70-65, at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center.
Noah Barren scored a game-high 22 points and Daemar Kelly added 21 for Penn Hills (21-3), which won for the 18th time in its past 19 games. Brendan McCullough scored a team-high 19 points for Peters Township (22-4), which saw its 15-game win streak snapped as it fell just short of winning its second title and first since 2008.
Peters Township led Penn Hills, 31-30, at the half, a surprise considering Penn Hills boasts the No. 1 scoring defense in Class 5A and had surrendered 29, 41 and 51 in its first three playoff games. But there was no surprise in the third quarter as Penn Hills stormed out of the locker room to score the first eight points and take a 37-32 lead. Peters Township, which has the No. 1 scoring offense in the classification, didn’t score until there was 4:16 left in the quarter and managed only nine points in those first eight minutes. Penn Hills led, 44-39, heading into the fourth and led by at least three points the rest of the game.
“They’re a good defensive team,” Peters Township coach Joe Urmann said. “Obviously they’re really active in the passing lanes. I thought they were able to disrupt us there. And then you saw going to the rim tonight, when you get there, there were some bodies and some guys that can protect that basket.”
Penn Hills led by as many as 11 points midway through the fourth quarter before Peters Township made a late run. Thomas Aspinwall’s 3-pointer trimmed the Peters Township deficit to 58-54 with two minutes left, but Kelly sealed the game at the free-throw line. Penn Hills was 20 of 23 from the line in the game.
Offensively for Penn Hills, Barren was the starter and Kelly the closer. You’ve heard of Noah’s Ark, well, another Noah and his arc played a big role Thursday. Barren, a senior guard, scored 16 points in the first half, a bunch of which came on high-arcing floaters. And in the second half it was the “Kelly Show.” Kelly, a senior guard and Quinnipiac recruit, tallied 15 of his points after the break.
“They’re two really good players,” Urmann said. “I know Noah had a really big first half. We were really thinking Daemar would try to make a push in the second half and he did. I thought rebounding was a big part of the game, obviously. But I’m proud of our guys. They battled their butts off. They tried to rebound as hard as you can possibly ask them to rebound, so I’ve got no issues with our effort there. We just weren’t able to execute.”
Robert Thomas added 13 points and Julian Dugger 10 for Penn Hills, which held a 32-23 rebounding edge and was 25 of 46 from the field (54%). Peters Township finished 24 of 55 (43%). Jack Dunbar had 15 points and Nate Miller chipped in 11. Dunbar, the team’s leading scorer on the season, was limited to just four points in the second half. Urmann said afterward that Dunbar was affected by a hip flexor injury he suffered early in the first quarter. Dunbar poured in 27 points in a semifinal win against Gateway.
But in a battle of Indians, it was the ones from Penn Hills that shined the brightest. Giles preaches “PHamily” to his players, and Giles included another member of his family during the trophy ceremony as 3-year-old Jaxx Giles passed the championship trophy off to Kelly. It was the fitting end for what was a special night.
“I knew it was going to take some time,” said Giles, who is in his third season. “We took our lumps. We had a tough loss in the playoffs last year to Highlands and then we lost in the state playoffs to New Castle. But our guys kept working and kept working, and again, we expected to be here. We expected to be sitting here right now.”