Fox Chapel tops Hempfield, ends playoff victory drought
Much like junior Brian Papich, Fox Chapel showed it has enough talent to surprise.
Papich scored 23 points and delivered a couple high-flying dunks in Wednesday night's 51-43 victory over Hempfield in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs. The postseason victory was Fox Chapel's first in five seasons. The Foxes will play No. 2 North Allegheny in the quarterfinals Saturday at a site and time to be determined.
With star junior Matt D'Amico well-defended, the Foxes (17-6) relied on Papich. He delivered often, including an important layup and foul shot with 1:43 left in the third that gave the Foxes an 11-point lead.
“That's why it's nice to have two guys who could carry the load,” Fox Chapel coach Zach Skrinjer said. “We just kind of pounded into Pap's head all week that you can be the difference — be aggressive. ... When he does that, we're a very different team. And we're a better team.”
Papich made 3 of 4 free throws in the fourth quarter, including two with 43 seconds left. Fox Chapel played an efficient fourth quarter, shooting well and making 9 of 12 free throws.
“Good players step up in big games,” Hempfield coach Jim Nesser said. “That's exactly what he did. That's what good teams do. Good teams pick up each other.”
Papich's scoring ability doesn't surprise, but the way he scores sometimes does. The 6-foot-2 guard leaps better than appearances would imply. His third-quarter steal-and-dunk highlighted a 10-3 run that broke a 22-22 tie.
“When we're doing our film session, we usually run the dunks back and we like watching the other team's bench,” Skrinjer said, “because usually guys on their bench are putting hands over heads and covering faces.”
Hempfield (17-6), the Section 1 champion, sought its first playoff victory in a decade. The Spartans last reached the second round in 2003. Kason Harrell led Hempfield with 17 points, and Arnie Cuttrell added 12. The Spartans played without 6-foot-7 sophomore Tony Pilato.
D'Amico and Billy Urso each added eight points for Fox Chapel. D'Amico has averaged 22.7, putting the 6-3 guard second among Class AAAA scorers. Papich averaged 14.9.
“Everyone by now is catching on that Matt is a pretty good scorer,” Papich said. “Obviously, they're going to put the focus on him. I struggled with confidence somewhat this year. But coming into the game I just forgot about everything and played the game.”
Fox Chapel's most recent playoff win was a 54-53 first-round victory over Latrobe in 2007. The Foxes had qualified just once since, taking a first-round loss in 2009.
“This is my first group going through, and for the seniors it's really nice to get that first one down,” Skrinjer said.
Fox Chapel held an 11-point lead in the third quarter, but it was down to five points with five minutes left. A quick 7-2 Hempfield run had cut into the gap, highlighted by a layup through contact and foul shot by Ty George just 56 seconds into the fourth.
With 2:10 left and Fox Chapel ahead, 45-40, an errant pass sunk Hempfield's chance to shrink the lead. Fox Chapel's Connor Duquette made two free throws with 1:37 left, and Urso made two more 18 seconds later to widen the lead to nine.
Fox Chapel played an efficient fourth quarter, shooting well and making nine of 12 free throws. Papich made the final two with 43 seconds left.
Hempfield made just two field goals in the final five minutes.
“Every possession in a playoff game is magnified,” Nesser said. “We had some chances to do some things, and we just didn't take advantage of opportunities. The better team won, no doubt.”
Hempfield had led by one point with 2:34 left in the second quarter, until a 9-2 run gave Fox Chapel a 28-22 halftime lead. That was the last of six lead changes.