Seton-La Salle basketball teams share WPIAL Class AA limelight
The Seton-La Salle girls were all smiles as they stretched in a corner section of the A.J. Palumbo Center gym in preparation for their WPIAL Class AA title game.
And why not? The Lady Rebels were in familiar territory — they had advanced to the WPIAL finals in each of the five previous seasons.
Two hours later, their demeanor had not changed.
The top-seeded Seton-La Salle girls' basketball team cruised past previously undefeated Burrell, 55-34, Friday night to claim their sixth WPIAL championship in school history.
A day later, Seton-La Salle's boys' team edged Greensburg Central Catholic at the Palumbo Center, 52-51, to earn its second WPIAL championship in school history.
The top-seeded Rebels were led by 5-foot-10 senior point guard Dale Clancy, who finished with a team-high 16 points, and 6-6 senior forward Levi Masua, who grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked seven shots.
It was the first time Seton-La Salle won WPIAL boys' and girls' basketball crowns in the same season in school history.
“It's never happened, so getting to be part of it is really special. To be able to win both WPIAL championships is truly special and will be cherished and celebrated by our programs,” said Mark Walsh, the Rebels' third-year head coach. “The staffs and players of both teams get along, support and cheer for each other throughout the season.
“I've never been in this position before. It's euphoric, I guess. We kind of thought our guys would have a great chance to win it. It's a good group of kids. There has been a lot of excitement at Seton-La Salle High School over the last few years for the basketball programs, and these last few weeks has cranked it up another notch. It's just so much fun.”
The Rebels captured their first WPIAL Class AAA title 25 years ago under head coach Johnny Lee. Future North Carolina player Kevin Salvadori was a member of that championship squad.
“It feels great, feels great,” said the super-quick Clancy, the Centurians' primary focus in this year's title game. “We knew at the beginning of the year that somewhere, sometime we would meet GCC.”
Lady Rebels reel in third in four years
Prior to 2013-14, the Lady Rebels won the WPIAL Class AAAA title in 1984, and Class AA titles in 1983, 2000, 2011 and 2012.
“It's just nice to have good players. We didn't do anything exotic. We just let the good players play,” said Spencer Stefko, the Lady Rebels' first-year head coach.
“They did a heck of a job. We wanted to put a lot of pressure on the ball. The kids committed to it, and for whatever reasons it worked out.”
Even though Burrell was the only undefeated girls' team in the playoffs, it was their first appearance at the WPIAL finals.
The Lady Buccaneers' inexperience on the big stage quickly became evident.
Burrell (25-1), the No. 2 seed, committed five turnovers and was not able even to attempt a shot until three minutes of the game had elapsed.
Seton-La Salle held a 9-0 lead by that time, en route to a 32-12 halftime cushion.
“I think we played scared, the whole team,” Meghan Ziemianski, Burrell's head coach, said. “I tried to settle them down. I don't even think it was the venue. It was (Seton-La Salle's) athleticism, their speed, their pressure. They scored all those points in transition. We couldn't get the ball into the lane.
“You know they're coming to trap. We just couldn't execute. I think we were mentally exhausted, more than anything.”
The Lady Rebels' three Pitt recruits, Yacine Diop, a 5-10 senior guard/forward; Naje Gibson, a 6-foot senior guard/forward; and Cassidy Walsh, a 5-9 junior guard; along with 5-4 sophomore guard Shaunay Edmonds, dominated early.
Those four players, plus a 3-pointer by 5-6 junior guard Julie DeKlaven, accounted for all the Seton scoring in the first half.
“We able to exert a lot of energy. We've got a much deeper bench than a lot of teams,” said Stefko, former floor boss at Chartiers Valley. “We trap and rotate. It's really nice to have five kids honed in on the defensive end. We're blessed to have so many really good players.”
Diop and the lightning-quick Edmonds both ended up with game-high 15-point totals, while Gibson finished with 10 points.
Clancy provides first-quarter spark
Seton-La Salle's boys' team also jumped out quickly on No. 2 Greensburg Central Catholic, 22-13, as Clancy drained three of his four triples in the first eight minutes.
GCC (22-3) went on an 8-0 run in the final 1:48 of the second quarter to assume a 28-27 halftime lead.
“We felt good at halftime. They made a big run and we were only down by one,” Walsh said. “I told my guys at halftime, ‘keep your composure.'
“We did a better job of blocking out (in the second half). Taking the lead at the end of the third quarter I think was big.”
It stayed nip-and-tuck — there were three ties — in the tight third quarter.
Both sides entertained brief four-point advantages in the period, and it wasn't until Malik White, a muscular 6-4 senior center, registered four consecutive points in the fourth frame did Seton-La Salle finally secure a lead it never relinquished.
Ryan Norkus, a 6-3 junior forward, sank two free throws with 21.1 seconds to go, giving the Rebels to a 51-46 lead.
Then Cletus Helton, a 6-foot sophomore guard, hit one of two from the charity stripe with 7.2 seconds remaining to hand the Rebels a 52-48 cushion.
“Cletus did a good job coming off the bench for us. He stepped up huge at the foul line,” Walsh said. “After our (semifinal) game against Beaver Falls, Ryan went to the gym and shot 50 free throws. That shows you what kind of kid he is.
“I've seen enough of these games (at Palumbo) to know that you don't want to be on the back end of an end-of-the-game buzzer beater. This was totally awesome. This is like the top of the mountain.”
Edmonds enjoys dazzling performance
Edmonds sparked the Seton-La Salle girls with a dazzling backcourt performance against Burrell. The Lady Rebels, propelled by Edmonds, forced 25 turnovers in the game.
“Everyone talks about the Pitt girls, but she is one of those unsung heroes. She brings so much energy, especially on the defensive end,” Stefko said. “Shauna and Nicolete (Newman) both bring defensive pressure.”
Walsh, DeKlaven and Newman, a 5-7 junior guard, combined to score the Lady Rebels' remaining 15 points.
The Lady Rebels opened the fourth quarter with a 9-0 surge, capped by two hoops by Edmonds, to entertain a 50-21 lead with 4:51 remaining in the game.
Pepperdine recruit Sydney Bordonaro, a 5-7 junior guard, led Burrell with 14 points, connected on four 3-pointers.
For the energetic Diop, a transfer from Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and a Senegal native, it was her first time in a WPIAL championship game.
“It feels great,” Diop said.
Gibson has been in the WPIAL finals in each of the last four years.
“It means a lot; it feels good,” Gibson said. “We worked hard on defense; we worked as a team.”
The Lady Rebels, who improved to 22-4 overall, will play Blairsville, the third-place team from District 6, on Friday in the first round of the PIAA playoffs.
DelGreco, White combine for 19
Christian DelGreco, a 5-10 senior guard, finished with 10 points for the Seton-La Salle boys' team against GCC, while White ended up with nine points.
“Malik is a strong player. Look at his body; he's built,” Walsh said.
Masua, Norkus and Holton rounded out the Rebels' scoring.
“Defense is what wins championships,” Masua said. “Four years ago we were 4-18, then Coach Walsh came in, and we worked hard for three years. We knew we had all the talent, all the guys to get the job done.
“I love these guys. It's been a great journey. It's fun.”
Masua, who also is a soccer standout, stepped up his inside game when White was forced to the bench with three fouls early in the third quarter.
“I've got long arms. I just use that to my advantage,” Masua said.
Helton's free throw a cliff-hanger
Helton provided an extra dramatic moment in the game's waning seconds, as his first free-throw attempt briefly hung on the rim before finally dropping through.
“It reminded me of the time Tiger Woods hit a putt and it stopped at the tip of the cup,” Walsh said. “I can't tell you what (this win) means to me, and what these guys gave to me as a coach. And I can't say enough good things about my assistant coaches.
“We tip our hats to the Centurians. They had a great year.”
Greensburg Central Catholic was led by senior guard Billy Hipp's game-high 19 points, which included 14 first-half points.
“It was just a hard-fought battle between two good teams,” Dave Palcac, GCC's assistant coach, said. “One big difference was our foul shots. We've struggled a bit at the foul line this year.”
The Rebels will play Penns Valley, the fourth seed from District 6, on Saturday in the first round of the PIAA playoffs.
Ray Fisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or firstname.lastname@example.org.