Section 1 rivals Hempfield, Penn-Trafford meet again with title on the line
John Giannikas' prediction came true.
A month ago, the Penn-Trafford girls basketball coach told his good friend Aaron Epps, the Hempfield girls basketball coach, that the Spartans would make the WPIAL finals.
“Despite losing a couple close games, they were playing well,” Giannikas said. “I told Aaron they were close to making a run and their luck would change.”
Epps' Spartans lived up to Giannikas' prediction. But was the Penn-Trafford coach making the same prediction for his team?
“No, I didn't want to add any more pressure on my girls,” Giannikas said.
The Section 1 and Westmoreland County rivals surprised the WPIAL basketball committee and the rest of the teams in the Class AAAA playoffs by reaching the championship game 9 p.m. Saturday at Palumbo Center. Both are in the finals for the first time.
“To be honest with you, John is one of my best friends,” Epps said. “He told me after his (semifinal) game, ‘Let's go. It would be great to play in the finals.' It's a big rivalry, and I wouldn't want it anyway else.”
Hempfield (17-8) reached the finals by following the same script through the first three games of the playoffs : Start fast and build a lead, play sound defense and dictate the pace of the game.
The 12th-seeded Spartans took apart three higher seeded teams in the process, defeating No. 5 Upper St. Clair, 65-56; No. 4 Bethel Park, 56-38; and Tuesday an impressive 60-44 victory against No. 1 North Allegheny on Tuesday.
“When we were 6-5, I kept telling the girls they were playing well,” Epps said. “We never panicked. The young kids grew up and Monica (Burns), Leah (Knizner) and Lexi (Irwin) got even better.
“We believed we were better than we were playing. When we defeated Upper St. Clair, our confidence grew.”
Burns, a senior guard who will play at IUP, is commanding the Spartans. She takes over games, and her teammates have followed.
Burns is averaging 20.3 points in the playoffs, Leah Knizner 14 and Lexi Irwin 10.3. Michele Burns and Sam Orie also have contributed.
Epps said the difference is playing defense.
“I knew we could score with anyone,” Epps said. “Early in the season, I was embarrassed how we were playing defense. Now we've strapped it up and we're playing well.”
Penn-Trafford (19-6) has been a giant-killer itself. After the No. 7 Warriors defeated Plum, 46-41, they posted a 32-24 win against No. 2 Mt. Lebanon and edged No. 3 Fox Chapel, 44-43, in overtime.
“This is great for Section 1,” Giannikas said. “Norwin was a basket from making the final four. We have a competitive section and it prepared us for the playoffs.”
Maria Palarino scored 28 points in Penn-Trafford's win against Fox Chapel. The junior is a tough matchup because she's a threat inside and outside.
But Giannikas must find a way to slow the Spartans' scorers.
“We'll have to find away to score,” Giannikas said. “We have to slow them down and keep them from starting fast.”
That's the job facing Palarino, Casey Aunkst, Katy Abreu, Kaila Simcoviak and Athena Biondi.
“There will be no surprises,” Epps said. “The teams know each other well. I'm sure it will come down to the end like it always does.”
Penn-Trafford won both meetings this season: 63-62 on Jan. 4 at home, and 53-49 on Jan. 29 at Hempfield.