Clairton players relishing rare underdog role in matchup with top-seeded Lincoln Park
Over the last few years, Clairton has become used to the post-football hangover that has held the basketball team back from reaching its full potential.
Winning four consecutive state titles will do that.
This season is no different.
The Bears were 15 games in before they had their entire lineup together for the first time and, even at that, they have only been at full strength for three of their 21 games.
“It sounds weird, but we're still a work in progress,” Clairton coach Matt Geletko said. “I've only really had these guys for two weeks and it's kind of like the preseason, but they're a close-knit bunch and this is going to be the first time in four years they're going to be a decided underdog. People are telling them that they can't win, and our guys respond well to that.”
If Clairton (15-6) has an ‘A' game, it had better bring it to Keystone Oaks at 8 p.m. Tuesday when it takes the floor against defending WPIAL Class A champion and two-time PIAA finalist Lincoln Park (19-5) for a semifinal matchup. The winner gets a trip to Palumbo Center for the championship game at 7 p.m. Friday.
“Athletically, I think we're just as athletic as them, but they have 6-foot-8, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-5 guys who are not only athletic, but are skilled with the ball,” Geletko said. “They honestly remind me of a Division III basketball team because they have nice post guys, their guards are big and it's definitely going to be a challenge, but it's not one we're going to back down from. That's for sure.”
Even though Lincoln Park is in Midland, the charter school draws student-athletes from all over the region, which is why Clairton has familiarity with several Leopards players. A few of the Bears grew up playing against 6-foot-9 junior forward Elijah Minnie, a Monessen native who jumped through quite a few hoops before his transfer was accepted by the PIAA, along with 6-foot-6 junior Ryan Skovranko, who played as a freshman at West Mifflin and has developed into one of the best swingmen in the WPIAL.
“It's a rivalry, kind of like playing Duquesne,” Clairton senior Tyler Boyd said. “We're going to come out hard, and we know it's a battle and it's time to go to war.”
Lincoln Park has rolled through the first two rounds — the Leopards are averaging 97 points with an average margin of victory of 49.9 points. In seven of their final eight games, including the postseason, they have scored at least 80 points.
“Taking on a team like that is like somebody trying to take us on in football, so we're just excited and overwhelmed to be able to step on the court with them boys,” Boyd said. “We've heard a lot of talk about how they're the greatest and they're going to have an easy run to the WPIAL championship, but you know us. We love to compete and we don't want anyone to take us lightly.”
There is no doubting Clairton's raw athletic ability, but the Bears haven't had much chance to get into basketball shape after football season ended with a fourth consecutive PIAA Class A championship Dec. 14.
For most of the season, the lack of basketball conditioning showed in the fourth quarter against quality opponents, but it appears the team may have eliminated that obstacle thanks to having a week off between the first and second rounds. Not only were the Bears able to stay with Union in the quarterfinals, they wore the Scotties down and appeared to be the fresher team late in the game.
“That week off was great because we had some good practices,” Clairton guard Bryon Clifford said. “But Lincoln Park is in our way of our goal, which is a championship.”
Still, it will take more than a good week of practice for Clairton to stay with a team that might be able to compete with some of the best in Class AAAA. But the Bears have a tendency to play their best with a chip on their shoulder and, knowing that Lincoln Park defeated them in both meetings in 2011, including a 62-57 win in the state semifinals that year, might be all they need to give themselves a slight edge.
“The best thing for an opponent would be to go out, warm up and just play your game because you'll have a better chance than if you come out hooting and hollering and your fans are saying stuff to us,” Geletko said. “That gets us going and these guys are going to be ready for it. We've got a shot at them and that's all that we can ask for.”