HERSHEY, Pa. — South Fayette’s 2022-23 season was one for the ages, but all good things must come to an end.

After winning back-to-back WPIAL Class 5A titles, the Lions (28-3) rode a 22-game winning streak into their first PIAA championship appearance. Unfortunately, there was a bona fide juggernaut waiting for them Saturday night at Giant Center.

Taking on two-time defending state champion Archbishop Wood (25-5), South Fayette fell into an early hole it could never quite climb out of in a 61-54 loss in the PIAA Class 5A championship game. One of the premier programs in the state, Archbishop Wood captured its eighth PIAA title while playing in the state finals for the 11th time in the past 14 seasons.

“These kids aren’t quitters. That’s one thing you can be assured of,” Lions coach Bryan Bennett said. “We didn’t win tonight, but they’ve accomplished so much in the last two years. When they get older and look back, they’re going to be pretty pleased with what they did in high school.”

South Fayette’s Rachel Black, right, and Archbishop Wood’s Kara Meredith go after a loose ball. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

South Fayette had no answer for Archbishop Wood star senior Deja Evans, an Albany recruit who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, or junior guard Ava Renninger, who led all scorers with 21 points on 9 of 11 shooting. Junior guard-forward Erica Hall led the Lions with 17 points.

“Obviously the game wasn’t the outcome we expected, but I think we were all more sad because our season was over,” Hall said. “We grew so close together this season and we just all love playing together and love the sport of basketball.”

Star senior Maddie Webber authored several signature moments during South Fayette’s run to the state title game, including a game-winning 3-pointer in the PIAA quarterfinals and a 24-point outburst in the Western Region final. The Vikings limited her to only 11 points on Saturday, though, bringing an end to one of the most storied WPIAL careers in recent memory. Webber will graduate with 1,387 career points.

“Every time I touched the ball, I was double-teamed, and there’s only so much I can do with that,” Webber said. “I just needed to find my open teammates and have confidence in them to get baskets.”

Archbishop Wood limited the effectiveness of South Fayette’s Maddie Webber with constant double teams. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Keeping Webber from taking over the game was the top priority for Archbishop Wood coach Mike McDonald, and the Vikings sent constant double teams her way. Freshman Delaney Finnegan did an outstanding job of slowing Webber down and denying her the ball.

“[The plan was] not letting her get the ball as often as possible. It wasn’t even a hesitation,” McDonald said. “We knew Delaney Finnegan was going to be on her. As much as we can keep the ball out of her hands, do it. And then when she got the ball in her hands, we tried to run double teams to make someone else beat us.”

Archbishop Wood came out firing from the opening tip, making 9 of 14 field goal attempts in the first quarter while going 4 for 6 from 3-point range. The Vikings were even more efficient in the second quarter, shooting 6 of 7 from the field to finish 15 for 21 (71.4%) in the first half. They finished the game shooting 22 of 35 from the field and 7 for 14 from beyond the arc.

“They’re a good shooting team. There’s no doubt about it. We knew that coming into the game,” Bennett said. “I thought nerves played a huge factor in the first half.”

South Fayette’s Erica Hall tries to steal the ball from Archbishop Wood’s Deja Evans as Ryan Oldaker falls to the ground. Hall and Evans scored 17 points apiece and Evans also pulled down 12 rebounds. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Evans started out hot and never really cooled down, making a 3-pointer to give Archbishop Wood a 15-7 first-quarter lead. The Vikings then went up 20-8 before a layup by Ava Leroux stopped the bleeding, but only momentarily.

After Lions freshman Ryan Oldaker drained a 3-pointer early in the second quarter to end a 21-7 run by Archbishop Wood, Evans stretched the Vikings’ lead back to 16 on an easy layup. She tallied 14 points in the first half as Archbishop Wood took a comfortable 37-24 lead into the break.

South Fayette attempted to mount a comeback early in the third quarter, cutting the deficit to nine on a layup by Leroux. Leroux and Webber then converted back-to-back baskets to trim the Vikings’ lead to 42-34 before Archbishop Wood countered with a pair of 3-pointers to make it a 14-point advantage.

Despite the sizable gap, the Lions continued to fight. A bucket by freshman Juliette Leroux made it a 10-point game midway through the fourth, then Hall cut the Vikings’ lead to 56-48 off a nice assist from Webber with 1:16 to play. Ava Leroux trimmed the lead to five at 56-51 on a 3-pointer with 47 seconds remaining, but South Fayette simply ran out of steam after that and the Vikings held on for the 61-54 win.

“Our whole talk in [the locker room] was just about how great our season was,” Webber said. “Even though it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, just to be proud of ourselves. They were a great team and we fought back, but we can only do so much.

“Getting so excited to come here and just being together — any time we’re together, it’s a happy moment.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.