Record-setting season far from over for Thomas Jefferson boys

| Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

There was Eric Fairman's 3-pointer at the buzzer against Steel Valley and his layup as time expired against Elizabeth Forward that gave Thomas Jefferson two wins it probably shouldn't have had.

Then there was the last-second shot against St. Stephen's Episcopal in Florida in December, not to mention Chase Winovich's odd-bouncing free throw in overtime against Blackhawk last week that propelled Thomas Jefferson into the semifinals for only the fourth time in the school's 55-year history.

Zach Talley rattled off all the unusual ways Thomas Jefferson has won games this year and could only come to one conclusion.

“We are a team of destiny,” Talley said. “That has been our motto all year and we aren't going to be satisfied until we win it all.”

“I agree,” said Winovich following practice on Monday. “Look at some of the games we won and you can't help but to think we are a team of destiny.”

It's a pretty fitting motto for Thomas Jefferson, especially when you take into account the limited history of a basketball program that's still trying to emerge from a formidable shadow cast by the football team, even after a school record-breaking 22-win season.

Thomas Jefferson has won five times as many state football championships than the basketball team has played in WPIAL title games and that appearance came nearly a decade before any of the current players on the team were born.

“We are really not known for basketball here,” Talley said. “We just want to put TJ basketball back on the map. We still don't get enough respect. You still read about Elizabeth Forward and others in the paper every day and we just want to remind people that we play basketball here as well.”

No. 3 Thomas Jefferson (22-2) will get that chance Tuesday when the Jaguars take on No. 2 Central Valley (20-3) in the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals at Chartiers Valley. Central Valley's only losses this year were to Quad-A powers Hampton, New Castle and Obama Academy of the City League.

A win would send Thomas Jefferson to Friday's Class AAA championship game at the Palumbo Center against Chartiers Valley (23-1) or Uniontown (21-1).

“This is huge for us,” Thomas Jefferson coach Dom DeCicco said. “These kids have worked their butts off and that's been our goal all year — our No. 1 goal all year is to play for the title. We have been in pressure situations all year long so it is nothing new to us. It is another pressure game.”

The two teams have contrasting styles of play. Thomas Jefferson uses six players and relies on its physicality with Fairman and Winovich along with an up-tempo offensive philosophy with Talley, Jason Horan, Charlie Scharbo and Zack Good.

Central Valley counters with a defense-first mentality with 6-foot-8 senior center Matt Kline, along with John George, Jacob St. George and Michael Sims as they go nine deep into their bench.

“I don't think we will wear down,” DeCicco said. “We have been through it with West Mifflin and Steel Valley. We have a couple keys: How we handle their pressure man defense and how well we defend on our end.”

TJ is averaging 71 points per game while Central Valley is allowing 48, including holding Montour to its season low output in the quarterfinals.

“We have to shoot well and stop their transition so we can get our transition going,” Talley said. “We love to run. You see us on film and think you can stop us but when we get on the court it is like ‘whoa, we weren't ready for that.' ”

TJ has won 15 in a row, but it won't mean a thing unless the Jaguars add one more.

“This is really the only thing right now in my life that is important,” said Winovich, a Michigan football recruit. “I was telling the guys after practice the other day that this is our golden ticket, our opportunity of a lifetime. Whatever it takes and whatever you have to do to mentally and physically prepare for this game you have to do because this means everything.”

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