Gorman: Improbability beats invincibility
There was an air of invincibility Friday night at Palumbo Center, as two of the most dominant teams in the WPIAL were playing not only for basketball championships but a shot at history.
The Seton-La Salle girls had won 66 consecutive games, went undefeated in winning the state title last year and were seeking their third consecutive WPIAL Class AA championship.
The Clairton boys, composed of players who had won 63 consecutive football games and four straight WPIAL and PIAA Class A titles, were trying to become only the 16th school in WPIAL history to win football and basketball championships in the same school year.
There is something incredibly powerful about believing that you're going to win, no matter the sport, no matter the opponent.
“That belief that we're going to win, that's what got us past Lincoln Park,” Clairton coach Matt Geletko said, referring to the Bears' 71-70 stunner of the top seed and defending WPIAL Class A champion in the semifinals. “It's very powerful. They're not used to losing. That fuels them, so you never feel like you're out of it.”
Just as intoxicating, however, is serving as the spoiler.
That is the role played by the Bishop Canevin girls and Vincentian boys, who embraced their underdog status on a grand stage. Bishop Canevin stunned Seton-La Salle, 56-47, while Vincentian conquered Clairton, 86-74. On a court full of Division I recruits, the unlikeliest of heroes stole the show.
Seton-La Salle had beaten Bishop Canevin, its Section 3-AA arch-nemesis, eight consecutive times. One of those wins was in the 2011 WPIAL final. Another was by 31 points on Jan. 14. The Rebels had beaten opponents by an average of 33.5 points this season.
“They're used to winning,” Seton-La Salle coach John Ashaolu said. “They have high expectations for themselves. They expect to win every game. They haven't lost that often. It's kind of stunning when you lose, especially in a game like this.”
That was before Johnie Olkosky started sinking 3-pointers. She's incorrectly listed as a 6-foot-9 junior on Bishop Canevin's roster, but played that big against Seton-La Salle. Olkosky tied a finals record with seven 3s, including back-to-back treys to start the second half and help the Crusaders build a 12-point lead.
“I think we do a great job of reminding them they are only as good as their last game,” Ashaolu said. “They hit shots. When you're hitting shots like that, it doesn't matter if you're Kentucky playing against the School of the Blind.”
Olkosky did this with Duquesne University coach Suzie McConnell-Serio sitting courtside, watching Dukes recruits Erin Waskowiak of Bishop Canevin and Angela Heintz and Cassidy Walsh of Seton-La Salle along with highly touted Rebels junior Naje Gibson.
“You're playing for a championship,” Bishop Canevin coach Tim Joyce said. “The reason it's tough is that they have really good players, really big players. It's not the fact that think they're invincible. It's that they're good.
“We're good, too. We might have gotten sold short on occasion because we had lost so many games to them. We had the best four-year run in school history and nothing to show for it other than the runner-up trophy. Now we do.”
Vincentian coach George Yokitis watched Clairton in warm-ups and joked that even he wondered how his Royals would win. Vincentian had only lost one game all season, but the Bears are led by Pitt football recruits Tyler Boyd, the two-time state player of the year, Titus Howard and Terrish Webb, and ultra-quick guard Bryon Clifford.
Yokitis called it a powerful and proper motivator.
“We had a quiet confidence we could play with them,” Yokitis said, “just not in football.”
Then Vincentian went out and set a frenetic pace that even Clairton's athletes couldn't keep up with. The game was tied at 39-39 at halftime before the Royals took control with an 11-0 run early in the third quarter to turn a five-point deficit into a 50-44 lead.
“It made us even closer,” Vincentian sophomore point guard Ryan Wolf said, “to realize nobody believed in us but ourselves.”
Nobody could believe that it was Jim Kenna leading the charge.
“He probably has a 10-inch vertical,” Yokitis joked. “But he's the most composed, calm person. He's got the most beautiful shot, perfect form.”
Kenna simply played the game of his life. The 6-foot-1 junior had a career-high 24 points and 11 rebounds. He made 7 of 9 shots from the field, including four 3-pointers, and sank all six free-throw attempts.
“A lot of people picked Clairton to win,” Kenna said. “We actually considered ourselves underdogs. We knew we could pull off the upset. It takes some of the pressure off you. You're not nervous because you're not expected to win.”
Clairton certainly didn't expect it. The Bears were trying to become the first team to win WPIAL titles in football and basketball in the same school year since Central Catholic, Jeannette and Serra Catholic all accomplished the feat in 2007-08. They fought back tears and disbelief as they were awarded silver medals for the first time in their careers.
Geletko was asked how his team handled the defeat.
“My guess is not too good,” he said. “This is the first time they've lost in any kind of title game.”
It was that kind of night, one where improbability beat invincibility.
An unlikely outcome, with even more unlikely heroes.