Fight mars Thomas Jefferson's section-clinching win
With an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot and knock off first-place Thomas Jefferson on its home court, Steel Valley coach Shawn McCallister pleaded for any kind of fight out of his team for three quarters — any kind of fight except for the one he got.
Steel Valley's 6-foot-8 sophomore center Tyler Lewis punched out Thomas Jefferson's Eric Fairman while the two were entangled. It was a scary scene at the end of the third quarter of a Section 4-AAA game, one that had administrators and police separating players and holding back fans while Fairman laid motionless on the court.
The ugly incident marred Thomas Jefferson's first section title in three years. The clincher was a 74-57 win over Steel Valley (11-8, 5-6) in a game that featured 28 first-half fouls and 50 combined free throws.
McCallister was embarrassed with the incident, which happened when time expired in the third quarter with Thomas Jefferson (15-6, 11-0) comfortably ahead, 55-40.
“I don't care what happens out on the court, I don't care what the guy is doing to you, I don't care what the excuse is — you just don't do that on a basketball court,” McCallister said.
After a couple of minutes sprawled on the court, Fairman was helped to the locker room. He returned to the bench late in the game, but he will miss TJ's showdown with West Mifflin (15-4, 10-1) on Friday.
“He is such a tough kid, and he is going to want to play,” Thomas Jefferson coach Dom DeCicco said. “But if there is even a question, I am not playing him.”
Lewis was ejected from the game. He will be suspended from school and will miss Steel Valley's must-win game against East Allegheny in Friday's section finale.
Steel Valley could've clinched a playoff spot with a win over TJ, but it fell victim to what most of the Jaguars' opponents have this year — physicality.
“We were very apathetic out there,” McCallister said. “To see a group of guys come out and have a chance to qualify for the playoffs and be apathetic like that is disappointing. We didn't come with the intensity we needed to win.”
Thomas Jefferson forced 32 turnovers, with many of them converted into easy points.
TJ's Joe Carroll led all scorers with 27 points, and Chase Winovich scored 11. Steel Valley got 18 points and 12 rebounds from Ajan Smith and 14 from Dorian Broadwater, but it couldn't overcome a physical brand of play that sent Thomas Jefferson to the line 33 times.
“We pride ourselves on dictating how a game is played,” DeCicco said. “When we can't dictate is when we had trouble.”
TJ controlled the tempo and was sparked by Fairman in the first quarter. He scored all six of his points in the final 97 seconds of the period to give the Jaguars an 18-7 lead.
“We got some good play from Fairman and Adam Miller, too,” DeCicco said. “Fairman is the guy who gets steals, loose balls, garbage points, and he plays the best defense out of anyone.”
Steel Valley was able to whittle its deficit to 37-30 midway through the third quarter but couldn't sustain the comeback, in large part because of 13 fourth-quarter turnovers.
“We've told the guys all year long not to get too high on the highs and too low on the lows,” McCallister said. “I want them to feel it tonight and come tomorrow put it behind them and get prepared for Friday.”
As for Thomas Jefferson, finishing 12-0 in the section is a goal. But to do that, it will have to beat West Mifflin on Friday.
“You couldn't ask for a better game to end the regular season,” DeCicco said. “Sure, we won a share of the section, but we have a lot of unfinished business. We have a lot of goals, and I want to say that we haven't reached any of them yet.”