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Trib Cup: Sewickley Academy ready for WPIAL final against familiar foe CWNC

| Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, 9:30 p.m.
Sewickley Academy's Nate Ridgeway battles for possession with Jeannette's Robert Kennedy (left) and Michael Pompei during a WPIAL Class A boys basketball semifinal game Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, at Chartiers Valley.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Sewickley Academy's Nate Ridgeway battles for possession with Jeannette's Robert Kennedy (left) and Michael Pompei during a WPIAL Class A boys basketball semifinal game Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, at Chartiers Valley.

Sewickley Academy boys basketball coach Win Palmer has continually preached staying in the moment to his team.

And in the Panthers' WPIAL Class A semifinal win over Jeannette on Tuesday, that's exactly what they did.

Trailing by a seemingly insurmountable 21 points with just 4:32 left to play in the Panthers' matchup against Jeannette, the team quickly converted a four-point play, followed by a three-point play to trim the deficit to 14 in close to a minute.

What followed was a 21-6 run, capped by Nate Ridgeway's go-ahead basket with .08 seconds left to send No. 2 seed Sewickley Academy to the WPIAL championship game against Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic at 7 p.m. Friday at the Petersen Events Center.

“I always believe there's a chance, whatever it is,” Palmer said. “And one of the things we preach to our guys is ‘stay in the moment.' Just focus on the next play, and these guys, they buy into it, it's tremendous.”

“We never gave up, we had nothing to lose, we gave it our all,” added senior guard Scott Brown, who registered the game-winning assist. “Down 21, you just give it your all, you have nothing to lose and we believed. We never lost doubt in ourselves.”

With its improbable semifinal comeback win, co-Section 1-A champion Sewickley Academy is featured as this week's Trib Total Media/WPXI High School Sports Award feature team, and is a big factor in the Panthers' first-place position in the Class A standings.

Junior guards Justin Pryor and Chris Groetsch led the team in scoring with 17 and 14 points, respectively, while Ridgeway added 11 in the semifinal win. Palmer credited both Pryor and Groetsch — the team's leading scorer with 19 points per game — for their work ethic on a daily basis.

“Tuesday night Justin carried us on his shoulders in the first half. He was just tremendous, driving to the basket, challenging their big guy, he played an incredible game. … He really goes after it to the point where he'll exhaust himself.”

While that trio has paced the Panthers (23-2) in the scoring column, Palmer said it has also been Brown's unselfish play which doesn't show up in the box score that has had a big impact on the team, a group that also received strong play from upperclassmen Declan Hickton and Daniel Salter-Volz.

“Scott's pass-first mentality really rubs off on all our guys,” he said.

Sewickley Academy prepared itself for a potential postseason run by scheduling challenging nonsection games throughout the season against the likes of the state's top-ranked Class A team in Kennedy Catholic, Brashear and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, its next opponent.

The Panthers are certainly familiar with their title game competitor, edging North Catholic in an overtime win less than a month ago after losing to the Trojans in a PIAA playoff play-in game last year and competing in the same section as recently as the 2013-14 season.

“Every time we play it's a close game and just tough basketball,” Palmer said. “I have the utmost respect for them. They grind it out with the best, and they make good decisions, so you've got to come ready to play 32 minutes.”

With such a short turnaround before the WPIAL title matchup after an emotionally-draining game like the Panthers just had on Tuesday, refocusing on the task at hand and preparing for North Catholic was a focal point at practice this week.

“I think it was nice to celebrate it that night and Wednesday it's obviously time to move on and get ready for North Catholic,” Brown said.

“(Wednesday) we just went over mental stuff and preparations and really didn't do much physically because we had some tired guys. … Wednesday was about going over preparations for what North Catholic does well, what they do well against us and just preparing for them,” added Palmer.

While Palmer will be looking for his fourth WPIAL title, this will be the first time any of the players on the Panthers roster will be competing for the WPIAL championship.

So when Sewickley Academy steps on to the court at the Petersen Events Center, it will turn to a veteran coaching staff in preparation for the big game.

So that when the lights get bright, the team can continue to live in the moment.

“When we get there, we want to enjoy it … this is the culmination of all your hard work, you've earned the right to go down there and enjoy,” Palmer said. “Obviously, you want to go down there and when the buzzer goes off, you're on the correct side of the score, but even if you're not, you want to enjoy every step of the way.”

Alex Oltmanns is a freelance writer.

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