Burrell braces for powerful Beaver Falls in WPIAL finals
Burrell's playoff push has been thrilling, but it also has provided hope.
The upstart Buccaneers have given a lot of boys basketball teams a new outlook on future playoff runs.
Teams that usually are considered non-factors, those satisfied with mediocrity and simply making the playoffs, suddenly can take a if-they-can-do-it, so-can-we approach to the future.
All thanks to the Bucs.
And once-degraded Section 1-AA, whose teams sheepishly allowed more prolific opponents to fast-break past them into the ground on the way to trophies, has a team in the championship.
That hasn't happened since Shady Side Academy reached the finals in 1999 and beat Farrell, 49-46.
“The championship games are played in March, but it's about all the work these kids put in during the offseason,” Burrell coach Rob Niederberger said. “That's what got them here. These kids are proof that it can be done.”
Senior-led Burrell (19-6) continued its playoff surge with a 43-32 overtime win over Quaker Valley in Wednesday's semifinals, vaulting the blue-collar Buccaneers, who began this journey in the preliminary round, into the WPIAL title game for the first time since 1979.
That followed wins over Beth-Center — the Bucs' first in the playoffs since 2006 — then Washington, then No. 2 Greensburg Central Catholic, also in overtime.
Burrell, a team that won just four times two years ago and finished a game below .500 last season (4-10 in section) in Class AAA, is set to face top-seeded and defending champion Beaver Falls (22-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Duquesne University's Palumbo Center.
“This is unbelievable,” Burrell 6-foot-3 senior forward Matt Hess said. “Coach has talked about it all season, making it to Palumbo. We started to believe we could do it.”
Burrell breaks every practice with players shouting “Palumbo,” in unison.
“It's crazy to think we're actually here,” senior guard Alex White said. “Coach started saying Palumbo; sometimes you don't pay attention when you hear things like that.
“Now, though, we're hearing it loud and clear.”
Burrell has won 10 straight games. Its last loss was Jan. 19 against Clairton.
“We kind of got a kick in the butt after that game,” Bucs senior forward Cole Bush said. “We kind of settled down and figured out what we needed to do. We've played pretty well since then.”
The Bucs loaded their nonsection schedule with tough opponents to get them ready for a playoff run. It included wins over Class AAA playoff teams Central Valley and Steel Valley. The Bucs lost to Loyalsock, ranked No. 9 in the state in Class AA, City League semifinalist Brashear and Class A finalist Clairton.
Beaver Falls, which averages 69.4 points, beat Central Valley, 62-59.
But discounting summer scrimmages, the Bucs haven't seen a team quite like Beaver Falls, which is winning by an average of 34 points in the playoffs. The frenetic Tigers, ranked No. 1 in the state, forced 20 turnovers against Apollo-Ridge, another Section 1 team that reached the semifinals. Beaver Falls snagged 16 of those turnovers in the first half and led, 51-12, at halftime.
Burrell knows a fast start by Beaver Falls could make for a long afternoon.
“They're the New York Yankees of double-A basketball,” Niederberger said. “I spent the whole day talking to every coach that played them this year. What they do isn't very complex. If we can handle their pressure, it should be a good game. If we don't, we're going to look like Apollo-Ridge or any of other teams they beat.”
Beaver Falls also defeated another local team, Class-AAAA Fox Chapel, 79-73.
The Bucs will look to become the Alle-Kiski's first boys basketball champion since Leechburg in 2007.
“We have had the toughest road in the WPIAL to get here,” Niederberger said. “We earned it. Really, in my mind, you really do have the top two teams in double-A in the finals.”
Burrell will have a fire-truck escort from Lower Burrell to Palumbo.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.