Fans of high school girls basketball already have been treated to plenty of buzzer-beaters, incredible individual performances and unthinkable upsets in this year’s state playoffs — and it only gets better from here.
Now that last week’s exhilarating PIAA quarterfinal round is in the books, it’s time to look ahead to the Western Region finals, where at least one WPIAL team is still alive in each classification. Eight local teams remain in contention for a state title overall, and while three WPIAL champions have been dethroned, another trio of teams have their sights set on double-champ status in 2023.
With such a quick turnaround going into the semifinals, teams won’t have much time to relax and reflect on the wins that got them here. With only one game standing in the way of a trip to Hershey to compete for their sport’s ultimate prize, each of the teams and players remaining will need to dig deep to find the strength and energy to deliver on the biggest stage yet. Those who manage to do so will be rewarded with a spot in the state championship game later this week, with a chance to cement their place in history forever.
No matter what happens Monday and Tuesday, though, at least two local teams are already guaranteed a spot in the state finals, with a pair of WPIAL championship rematches set for the Class 5A and Class 4A semifinals. Both matchups feature a ton of star power and no shortage of intriguing storylines, with two-time defending WPIAL Class 5A champion South Fayette (27-2) taking on Oakland Catholic (25-4) at Peters Township High School and WPIAL Class 4A champion North Catholic (25-3) battling Blackhawk (24-4) at New Castle High School, both at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re back at it on [Sunday] and we’re back at it on [Monday]. No days off,” Oakland Catholic coach Eddie Benton said. “At this point, whatever happens happens. We’ve just got to bring it.”
The Lions defeated the Eagles by a score of 64-49 in the Class 5A title game March 4 at Petersen Events Center, although Oakland Catholic held a 25-23 halftime lead before South Fayette took control of the game in the second half. Both teams had to scratch and claw their way to victory in the quarterfinal round, with the Lions rallying for a 40-37 win against vaunted District 10 powerhouse Cathedral Prep — formerly known as Villa Maria Academy — on a game-winning 3-pointer by Villanova recruit Maddie Webber as time expired.
The Eagles also received a big-time performance from their star senior in a 60-59 overtime win against section-rival McKeesport, as North Florida recruit Alexa Washington scored 17 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to lead her team to its fourth victory against the Tigers this season. McKeesport was 23-2 against all other opponents this year, and the Tigers had eliminated Oakland Catholic from the PIAA tournament in each of the past two seasons.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to effort,” Washington said. “I wasn’t losing to them for a third time in a row for my season to end.”
With South Fayette riding a 21-game winning streak into Tuesday’s showdown, most would point to the Lions as a clear favorite going into the game. But make no mistake about it — these Eagles can play with anybody, as proven by their win against undefeated District 6 champion Hollidaysburg in the second round. Washington also came up clutch in that one with a steal and score in the final seconds to help Oakland Catholic pull off a stunning 48-47 win.
“Oakland is a very talented team. They’re very well coached. They have talented kids,” South Fayette coach Bryan Bennett said. “I know our kids have grown up playing with them in AAU. They were in our section the past two years, so we do know them pretty well. I expect nothing less than a fight on Tuesday night.”
In the Class 4A title game on March 4, North Catholic defeated Blackhawk, 51-35, and the Trojanettes carry a 19-game winning streak into the rematch on Tuesday. The Cougars are playing without one of their best players in senior Quinn Borroni, a Mercyhurst recruit who tore her Achilles just before the start of the postseason. But freshman Aubree Hupp has stepped up in a major way alongside senior Kassie Potts and junior Alena Fusetti, making Blackhawk a dangerous foe for any team that takes the short-handed Cougars lightly.
“I think a lot of people wrote us off when you lose a player like Quinn,” Blackhawk coach Steve Lodovico said. “We just rallied around her, and I thought Aubree Hupp has really stepped up in these past six games. It’s just a total team effort.”
That being said, there’s no doubt North Catholic is the team to beat going into the rematch, and Lodovico said as much before the first meeting between the two. The Trojanettes feature an array of acclaimed scorers, ball-handlers, facilitators, rebounders and defenders, including juniors Alayna Rocco and Ava Walker and seniors Dacia Lewandowski, Anna Waskiewicz and Tori Drevna. Needless to say, Lodovico knows it will take a near-perfect game for Blackhawk to get back to Hershey.
“It’s been since 2015 since we’ve got here. We could never get past Villa Maria [now Cathedral Prep],” Lodovico said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity. Another rematch in the WPIAL. I don’t feel like we played our best game down there [at the WPIAL championship], so I’m looking forward to it.”
Only one undefeated team remains in the state playoffs, and Norwin’s reward for taking down WPIAL champion North Allegheny is a date with mighty Cedar Cliff (29-0) at 7 p.m. Monday at Altoona High School. The unbeaten District 3 champions put together a dominant defensive performance to end Upper St. Clair’s season in the quarterfinal round, holding the Panthers to 10 points and only one field goal until late in the third quarter of an eventual 39-22 win. Still, don’t expect the Knights (24-4) to back down from the challenge.
With sophomore guard Kendall Berger emerging as one of the area’s top talents and 6-1 junior Lauren Palangio stuffing the stat sheet night in and night out, Norwin has gotten hot at just the right time after a 38-36 WPIAL semifinal loss at the hands of North Allegheny. The Knights exacted revenge with a 50-30 win against the Tigers in the PIAA quarterfinals, and they have now won each of their past four games by 13-plus points to get to this point.
It will still take a monumental effort for Norwin to pull off the upset Monday, but if the Knights can get some offense going early, Cedar Cliff might start to feel the weight of that perfect record hanging in the balance. A fast start will be key to Norwin’s chances as the Knights look to avoid falling into the same insurmountable deficit as Upper St. Clair.
“We have good team chemistry. That’s what’s important,” Norwin coach Brian Brozeski said. “If you have chemistry, you’re going to have a championship team, and right now, I love the chemistry we have.”
After a fifth-place finish in the WPIAL tournament, not many would have expected Our Lady of the Sacred Heart to make it this far, but the resilient Chargers (22-7) have strung together five wins in a row by 14-plus points to set up a state semifinal clash against District 6 champion River Valley (28-2) 7 p.m. Monday at Kiski Area High School.
After avenging a trio of losses to WPIAL champion Avonworth with a resounding 39-23 win in a PIAA second-round matchup on March 14, OLSH knocked off District 6 runner-up Westmont Hilltop in the quarterfinal round, 47-32, to get to the doorstep of the state finals. But the Chargers will be a major underdog against River Valley, which thrashed Shady Side Academy by a score of 54-21 in the PIAA quarterfinals.
OLSH typically relies on guards Kyleigh Nagy and Mia Grisafi to handle the bulk of the scoring, and if both can perform at the top of their game on Monday, the Chargers may have a chance to continue their shocking run all the way to the PIAA championship game.
It’s extremely rare for one team to lose in the WPIAL quarterfinals and then make it to the state semifinals in the same year — but this year, two teams have turned the trick, as Greensburg Central Catholic joins OLSH as fifth-place finishers in the WPIAL in the Western Region finals.
The Centurions (24-5) lost to Burgettstown in the WPIAL quarterfinals, but they have since won five in a row by 13 points or more, including an impressive 53-35 win against WPIAL champion Shenango in the PIAA quarterfinals. Their state semifinal opponent is a daunting one, as District 10 champion Kennedy Catholic (24-4) is known as one of the premier programs in the state.
Kennedy Catholic already owns a win against WPIAL Class 4A runner-up Blackhawk earlier this year and has looked like a machine at times during its state playoff run. Not many will be picking Greensburg Central to pull off the win, but then again, not many expected them to make it this far, either. And with freshman Erica Gribble emerging as a potential future star to go alongside talented juniors Mya Morgan and Avery Davis, the Centurions have plenty of firepower at their disposal.
Along with South Fayette and North Catholic, Union is only two wins away from joining the exclusive list of teams to win both WPIAL and PIAA championships in the same year. The Scotties (21-6) have relied heavily on their defense to make it this far, and they will need another steady dose of it to beat District 5 champion Berlin Brothersvalley (23-5) at Hempfield Area High School at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
With a 15-game winning streak going into the state semifinals, Union will surely have no shortage of confidence going into the matchup. The Scotties defeated Clarion in their PIAA first-round game, 47-9, then knocked off District 9 runner-up Elk County Catholic, 39-35, before defeating District 6 champion Williamsburg in the PIAA quarterfinals, 43-37.
Although this is Union’s first appearance in the Western Region final, the Scotties may have the best chance of any of the four remaining teams to make it to Hershey outside of the all-WPIAL matchups in Class 4A and Class 5A. Junior Kelly Cleaver will certainly have a major say in it if they are able to get there, but the talented 6-foot forward is going to need plenty of help in order to pull it off.