No matter the sport, the Central Catholic-North Allegheny rivalry just keeps getting better and better.
Only a few months after the football juggernauts collided in an action-packed WPIAL Class 6A championship game for the ages, the Vikings and Tigers put on another instant classic, this time on the hardwood Friday night at North Allegheny. After trailing for virtually the entire game, Central snatched victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to Enzo Khalil’s layup and free throw with 0.7 seconds remaining, escaping with a frenetic 58-57 victory to sweep the season series and capture the Class 6A Section 1 title.
“The kid barely played varsity last year,” Vikings coach Brian Urso said. “He didn’t start the first five games this season, but he has started ever since. … We found [Khalil] on the baseline, and he had the composure, as a sophomore, to make it, and then hit the free throw.
“He was ready for that moment. We all knew, as soon as he stepped to the foul line, it was going in.”
After senior guard Anthony Sciote calmly sank a pair of free throws to give North Allegheny a 57-55 lead with less than 10 seconds to play, the Tigers fouled Central twice with the clock winding down. The Vikings then inbounded the ball with less than five seconds on the clock, and senior point guard Payton Wehner found Khalil wide open under the hoop for the buzzer-beating basket. Khalil drew a foul in the process, then blocked out the roar of the crowd as he smoothly drained the free throw to cap off the game-winning 3-point play.
“It was loud, obviously. Both sides filled up,” said Khalil, crediting Urso’s father for working with him on his foul shooting at practice. “I started off struggling with my free throws at the beginning of the year, especially. … Coach [Urso] gets us ready to practice free throws all week, so I was ready.”
Senior guard-forward Joey Dopirak led all scorers with 24 points for North Allegheny, just above his season average of 20.8 ppg. Sciote chipped in 15 for the Tigers, and 6-11 senior Ty Iwanonkiw tacked on 11 in the gut-wrenching defeat. After the game, Dopirak offered high praise to Central, while also expressing his and his teammates’ desire for one more crack at the Vikings.
“It was packed in here. It was a great environment to play in,” Dopirak said. “I think we both have a chance to go far in the playoffs. It’s a tough loss, but hopefully we can get them back.”
Junior forward Bradley Gompers led the Vikings with 18 points, followed by 13 from Wehner, whose biggest contribution came on an acrobatic offensive rebound and assist to set up Xxavier Thomas for a game-tying 3-pointer in the final 30 seconds of regulation. That play helped Central finally close the gap after trailing throughout the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the unforgettable finish.
“When we were down six with five minutes left, I wrote on our board, ‘Quit,'” Urso said. “And I said, ‘Tell me right now, are you guys ready to quit? Or are we ready to fight back?’ And all five kids looked at me and said, ‘We’re fighting back.’
“It just shows our connectivity right now, and I’m so proud of our athletes inside that locker room.”
A nice feed from Dopirak to Iwanonkiw for a buzzer-beating layup gave North Allegheny an 18-13 lead at the end of the first quarter, and the Tigers maintained a slim advantage the rest of the half while taking a 31-25 lead into the break. Central chipped away at the deficit in the third quarter, but the Vikings were unable to seize control and North Allegheny remained on top going into the fourth, 43-41.
The Tigers stretched their lead to 51-45 midway through the final quarter, then Central methodically closed the gap to make it 53-52 with 1:11 to play. Two free throws from Dopirak gave North Allegheny a 55-52 lead before Thomas buried the game-tying corner 3.
“We worked on that drill in practice,” Urso said. “We call it ‘Dagger 3,’ to offensive-rebound it and get the same guy back open, and ‘X’ nailed it. The confidence Payton had to find him again after missing the first shot, just shows the level of trust with this group right now.”
With the game knotted at 55, Sciote sent the crowd into a frenzy with his go-ahead free throws, but the Tigers fans could do nothing but look on in stunned silence as the Vikings mobbed Khalil on the court after his game-winning 3-point play.
“Nobody believes in us,” Khalil said. “We’re ready for this moment, and we’re ready for the playoffs, so keep doubting us all you want.”
After graduating most of their core from last year’s WPIAL Class 6A championship team, including star Dante DePante, few would have picked Central as a prime candidate to repeat as WPIAL champs before the season started. But with Wehner’s steady leadership and the emergence of several key contributors like Gompers, Khalil, Thomas and Vernon Settles, this is a gritty, formidable group that knows how to perform under pressure, no matter the sport.
And as much as losing back-to-back WPIAL title games against North Allegheny in football still stings, Friday night’s game at least offered a semblance of payback for the Vikings. And who knows? Maybe we’ll see these rivals face off one more time with a championship at stake in just a few weeks.
“A win against them is a big win in any sport,” Wehner said. “This was a playoff atmosphere, and it was just a great game overall.”