Smith leads Steel Valley past East Allegheny
Trailing at halftime in a must-win game against East Allegheny in its Section 4 finale, Steel Valley needed a spark if it had any hope of locking up fourth place and a WPIAL Class AAA playoff spot.
And Ironmen coach Shawn McCallister put the responsibility of being the catalyst on senior swingman Ajan Smith.
“I've been telling Ajan that all year because he has the ability to dominate games,” McCallister said. “I told him at halftime that this is the reward for all the work you've done, but you're not stepping up at game time. And he proved me wrong.”
Did he ever.
Smith scored 13 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to help Steel Valley (12-8, 6-6) rally for a 75-70 victory over East Allegheny (12-10) to earn a third-place tie in the section and a coveted postseason berth.
“Coach called upon me to make shots and told everybody to get me the ball, and I just made plays,” Smith said. “It was a gut check for our team to see where our hearts were at, and now we're ready for the playoffs.”
Steel Valley came out and played like a team desperate for a win. Smith scored six points in the first quarter, and the Ironmen shrugged off a pair of early East Allegheny 3-pointers to take a 16-12 lead at the end of the quarter.
It appeared for a moment that Steel Valley was ready to pull away when Dom Keyes came off the bench and hit a layup 15 seconds into the second quarter for two of his 10 points and an 18-12 advantage, but that was the last shot the team hit in the half. The Ironmen went 0 for 15 from the floor in the final 7:45, and only a solid 8 of 10 from the free-throw line kept them in the game.
While Steel Valley went cold, Jordan Williams got hot at the right time. The Wildcats' leading scorer, who came in averaging about 17.0 points per game, was held without a point in the first quarter but hit a pair of threes as part of a 10-point second period that helped East Allegheny take a 30-26 lead at halftime.
Williams was even better in the third quarter as East Allegheny appeared ready to pull away. He hit four of his seven 3-pointers and 14 of his game-high 29 points in the period to help the Wildcats take a 55-49 lead into the fourth quarter.
Then, just like Steel Valley in the first half, East Allegheny went cold from the floor. The Wildcats missed their first 11 shots in the fourth quarter as the Ironmen opened the period on a 20-1 run to flip the game from a desperate comeback attempt into a playoff-clinching victory.
“We started forcing some shots and took some bad shots,” East Allegheny coach Vernon Benson said. “When they started coming back, we got out of sync there, and we just have to regroup and get ready for the playoffs.”
Because at least four teams from each of the five Class AAA sections make the playoffs, there is a likelihood that one or both of these teams will have to play a preliminary round game just to get onto the bracket. For East Allegheny, any postseason action is a bonus after not qualifying for the postseason since 1996.
“I've been here for two years, and our guys are still learning the transition game and they're getting better,” Benson said. “They're just learning how to win and how to finish teams off, but we'll be alright.”