Leechburg boys basketball tops Serra Catholic, gets help to reach WPIAL playoffs
The first point on the dry erase board in the Leechburg locker room implored the Blue Devils players to control what they could control.
But Leechburg needed some help Friday to make the WPIAL Class AA playoffs — a Riverview upset of Springdale, specifically.
The Blue Devils also had to take care of business against Serra Catholic at home on senior night.
Both scenarios turned out in Leechburg's favor. The Raiders scored a 59-51 victory at Springdale. About 20 minutes later, the Blue Devils finalized an intense 67-63 triumph over the Eagles.
“It was nuts out there,” said senior Cory Nulph, who finished with a team-best 25 points.
Nulph sank 1 of 2 free throws with 15 seconds left to make it a two-possession game. Serra countered with several long-range attempts that failed to connect. When the final shot rang off the rim, the Leechburg faithful erupted.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Nulph said. “I love it when it's like that. It gets us going. All of our fans and the community come together. I wanted to cry at the end of the game, but I was able to hold it in.”
Leechburg stands alone as the fourth playoff team from Section 1 with a final section record of 5-7. Serra and Springdale closed out their section slates at 4-8.
The Blue Devils are in the postseason for the second straight year after missing the playoffs in 2014 and 2015.
“I told my guys there was two things they could control — their attitude and their effort on the floor,” Leechburg coach Corey Smith said.
“They did both, and we picked up a huge win. It gives us a spark and more confidence going into the playoffs. Everyone is 0-0 now.”
Both coaches expected an intense, physical battle. The first game, Jan. 17 at Serra, went into overtime before the Eagles pulled out an 85-75 win.
A plethora of fouls Friday created numerous opportunities at the free-throw line.
Leechburg made 21 of its 34 fouls shots, and Serra was 18 of 32 from the line. The misses prevented the Blue Devils from pulling away and the Eagles from taking the lead.
A 3-pointer from Nulph and a layup from Christian Hack, who added 20 points, gave Leechburg a 5-0 lead two minutes into the game. The Blue Devils never trailed and built as much as a nine-point advantage in the second quarter.
Serra trimmed the deficit to two early in the third quarter, but Leechburg opened the advantage back up to 11 with 5 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the fourth.
The Eagles didn't go quietly, and with the effort of Jimmy Moon and Khalil Smith, they whittled the deficit to three at 66-63 with 35 seconds left. Moon finished with a team-best 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Smith scored 10 of his 14 points over the final eight minutes.
Malik Edmunson contributed 12 for the Eagles.
“Both teams battled so hard,” Serra coach Justin Walther said. “They pounded us on the glass in the first quarter, especially offensively. We preached all week about controlling the boards. When we started to turn that around, we were able to chip away at their lead. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. That's happened to us too many times this year.”
John Miskinis came off the bench for Leechburg and scored nine points. Seven came from the foul line.
The Blue Devils played without senior Wyatt Libitzer, who is recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in Wednesday's 77-46 nonsection rout of Sto-Rox. Smith said Libitzer should be recovered and ready for Leechburg's WPIAL first-round game.
“(Jake Blumer) came in and stepped up like he always does,” Smith said.