Burrell ready for rematch with Quaker Valley
Burrell knows its semifinal opponent well, having played — and lost to — Quaker Valley earlier this season. But don't let that fool you. These aren't the same teams that met on the second night of the regular season.
Burrell, in particular, has come a long way since that game.
“Light years,” senior forward Cole Bush said. “Not even close to the same team we were then.”
And speaking of light years, Burrell has gone 34 years between semifinal appearances, the last coming in 1979.
But the resurgent Buccaneers (18-6) are back in the Final Four and will get another shot at the Quakers (20-4), seeded sixth in Class AA, when the teams play at 6 p.m. Wednesday at North Allegheny.
The winner advances to the championship game 1 p.m. Saturday at Duquesne's Palumbo Center.
“We say it after we break practice every day,” Burrell coach Rob Niederberger said. “Palumbo.”
Niederberger has said it from the start: Class AA is wide open. Before the playoffs, he thought at least eight teams had a shot at the title, including his Buccaneers, and Quaker Valley, which clipped No. 3 Seton-La Salle, 62-61, in the quarterfinals.
“It hasn't been this way in the past,” Niederberger said. “You had your Beaver Falls, Jeannettes, Aliquippas, way above everyone. Last year, Beaver Falls was unstoppable.”
Top-seeded Beaver Falls (21-3), which plays Cinderella candidate Apollo-Ridge (18-7) in the other semifinal, went 28-3 last season, beat Monessen in the WPIAL final and finished second in the state.
But with two Section 1 teams in the Final Four, one has to wonder if Niederberger was on to something.
“If we play our game, we'll be fine,” Niederberger said. “I think this team really started to come together after the Clairton loss (Jan. 19). I gave them Monday off to think about things. They came back focused and completely different. It changed right there.”
Burrell hasn't lost since, winning nine in a row.
Back to Burrell being a different team: The Bucs were without sixth man Joey Cox and key reserve James Liput, while senior forward Matt Hess and Bush were trying to regain form following football season, when they first played the Quakers.
Bush also hadn't played basketball seriously for two years. Thinking he'd regret not doing so in his senior year, he decided to come out for the team again.
Now, out of his cocoon and looking like one of the best big men in Class AA, Bush has helped the Bucs to wins over Beth-Center, Washington and No. 2 seed Greensburg Central Catholic in this dizzying playoff push.
“It hit me after we beat Washington,” Bush said. “We can play with anyone. We can do this.”
Niederberger said Burrell has become more methodical in its approach to schemes and has gotten production out of everyone in its rotation.
Bush and Hess fouled out three times this year, the most recent against Greensburg Central. But guards such as Alex White and Pete Spagnolo quickly chimed in with clutch 3-pointers.
When the teams played Dec. 8 on the second day of the Quaker Valley Tipoff Tournament, Burrell pulled out to a 15-point lead in the first half before the Quakers came roaring back to win, 53-39.
In that game, 6-foot junior guard Qadir Taylor had 16 points, 6-3 senior guard Burke Moser added 14, and 6-4 sophomore swingman Chris Conlan had 11 for Quaker Valley. Spagnolo had 15 and Hess 11 for Burrell.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.