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Led by leading scorer in Class AAAA, Hempfield girls cruise into postseason

Steph Anderson | For the Tribune-Review - Hempfield's head coach Aaron Epps talks with his team prior to their tournament game against Greensburg Salem on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 at Hempfield High School.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Steph Anderson | For the Tribune-Review</em></div>Hempfield's head coach Aaron Epps talks with his team prior to their tournament game against Greensburg Salem on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 at Hempfield High School.
Steph Anderson | For the Tribune-Review - Hempfield's head coach Aaron Epps brings the team together for a pregame cheer prior to their tournament game against Greensburg Salem on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 at Hempfield High School.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Steph Anderson | For the Tribune-Review</em></div>Hempfield's head coach Aaron Epps brings the team together for a pregame cheer prior to their tournament game against Greensburg Salem on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 at Hempfield High School.

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As Aaron Epps heads into his first postseason as coach of the Hempfield girls basketball team, he's identified an advantage he'll hold over any of his counterparts in the WPIAL Class AAAA bracket.

“I know most games I go into, I probably have the best player on the floor,” Epps said. “Any coach would love that.”

While the term “best” is subjective, one thing isn't: Epps will have the top season point-producer heading into every game. Junior guard Monica Burns averaged 18.4 points per contest during the regular season, the most of any WPIAL Class AAAA player.

“Monica, she's just a flat-out scorer,” Epps said. “There's really just nothing she can't do on offense. Her range is the NBA line, basically, and she's a great ball-handler and great off the drive, and now she's even improved on making the other girls better by getting some assists.

“Offensively, I've been very proud of Monica. She's probably one of the hardest girls to guard, especially in Quad-A, scoring-wise, because not only can she shoot it, she can drive it and then shoot 85 percent from the foul line. She's just very tough to cover.”

Burns' scoring prowess is central among the reasons Hempfield (19-3, 14-0) swept to the Section 1-AAAA title and earned the No. 4 seed in the WPIAL playoffs. The Spartans open the postseason against Upper St. Clair (11-11) at North Allegheny 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Before closing the regular season with a loss at North Allegheny on Saturday, Hempfield had won 12 straight games.

“We're happy with the way the season's going, and we definitely want to make it to the WPIAL finals,” said Burns, a 5-foot-7 shooting guard. “That's a big goal for us, and we're just going to keep working as hard as we can to make it there.”

That's the way a team leader talks. A multiyear starter, Burns is embracing that kind of role as a junior.

“Monica's not a vocal leader; she moreso leads by example,” Epps said. “She's a gym rat, for one thing. Monica would sleep in the gym if she could.

“She has that drive to be good and the drive to play at the highest level. She has one of the best work ethics of any player I've coached in basketball. She wants to be a good player and she wants to work as hard as she needs to to do it. It's paid off thus far. She's still got a long way to go and a lot to improve on, and she also understands that.”

Burns vows to work on her defensive game — a worthy pursuit that, Epps says, is all that stands between her and a Division I scholarship.

Hempfield has its share of strong defensive players around Burns, including senior forward Lea Scozio. Burns' sister, Mary, is the Spartans' senior starting point guard. Mary Burns is averaging eight points — and only two turnovers — per game.

“That's phenomenal as a point guard,” Epps said.

Sophomore forward Leah Knizner is Hempfield's second-leading scorer at about 10 points per game. Senior forward Casey Hamilton is the team's top rebounder at roughly six per contest.

At six points and six rebounds per game, 5-10 junior forward Jasmine Jones is the Spartans' top producer off the bench. Sophomore forward Lexi Irwin and freshman guard Aubree Halusic also are valuable reserves.

“We've got a lot of different girls challenging for spots in practice,” Monica Burns said. “We have a lot of team chemistry, and that will work well for us in the playoffs.”

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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