Gorman: Beaver Falls follows tradition
Beaver Falls proved Saturday that it has the best backcourt in Western Pennsylvania, if for no other reason than the Tigers don't have a frontcourt.
That's taking nothing away from Drew Cook and Elijah Cottrill, their dynamite guard tandem, or from swingman Danny Stratton.
A year after winning the WPIAL Class AA championship with a lineup featuring 6-foot-8 Sheldon Jeter, 6-6 Royce Watson and 6-5 Deyne Richardson, the Tigers don't have a player taller than 6-2.
They had to reinvent themselves. Only they didn't.
Beaver Falls just continued to play its trademark pressure defense. That caused Burrell, the Cinderella story of the WPIAL playoffs after beating both second-seeded Greensburg Central Catholic and sixth-seeded Quaker Valley in overtime, to lose its composure.
“Our game plan was to jump on their guards and see how they handle not just our pressure but the enormity of the game,” Beaver Falls coach Doug Biega said. “When you pressure at all five positions, it's difficult on this level.”
The Tigers forced turnovers on the Bucs' first four possessions, seven of their first nine, 18 by halftime and a total of 24.
“After the first possession, I realized the pressure was going to get to them,” Cottrill said. “It seemed like they were scared of the pressure.”
As soon as the Bucs crossed halfcourt, their guards were caught in double-team traps. The Tigers also played the passing lanes, stealing any attempts to escape. They stole everything in sight, including the glass slipper, in cruising to a 61-33 victory and their second straight WPIAL Class AA title Saturday at Palumbo Center.
“We couldn't get into our offense,” Burrell coach Rob Niederberger said. “When we got there, we struggled to get open.”
Burrell anticipated as much, which is why the Bucs tried to simulate the pressure by playing their five starters against nine reserves in practice.
It didn't help.
“We don't have the athletes like they do,” said Burrell guard Pete Spagnolo, who made four fourth-quarter 3-pointers and scored 14. “It's different than any team we've played. This is the fastest team we've played all year.”
Not to mention the best.
Beaver Falls won by 28, the closest score in its four playoff games. The Tigers beat Bishop Canevin by 41, Brentwood by 30 and Apollo-Ridge by 32.
They didn't need a halfcourt heave to win like they did in 2005, when Lance Jeter made the most incredible shot in WPIAL championship game history to beat Aliquippa in triple overtime.
They didn't need to abandon their man-to-man defense like they did last year, when the Tigers relied on the scoring of Sheldon Jeter and turned to a zone defense to utilize their size advantage inside. Monessen made only 9 of 49 shots and scored the fewest points (27) in a WPIAL final in more than five decades.
The only Jeter involved in this WPIAL championship was Carliss, a Beaver Falls assistant coach.
That made it all the more impressive, given that cousins Lance and Sheldon Jeter are both former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review players of the year. Lance played at Nebraska and now plays professionally in Germany, while Sheldon is playing regularly as a freshman at Vanderbilt.
“Last year, we had a great team. This year, we showed we have a great program,” Biega said. “You can graduate great players, but you can't graduate defense.”
Fittingly, it was the 300th career victory for Biega, 42, who is in his 14th season as head coach at Beaver Falls. For the second consecutive year, Biega held his son, Jack, in his arms and draped his gold medal around his neck.
“He's a good luck charm,” Biega said, with a laugh. “He's 3 years old and has two gold medals. We might have to have another one.”
It was the Tigers' ninth WPIAL basketball championship since 1970 — they beat Burrell in the '79 final, the Bucs' only other finals appearance — and third under Biega, who pronounced Beaver Falls a “basketball school.”
When reminded that Beaver Falls has a proud football history, Biega repeated himself while wearing a sly smile.
Take that, Joe Namath.
Cook and Cottrill, generously listed at 6-2 and 6-3, respectively, are the Tigers' tallest players, as well as their best. And they're both guards, so everyone else is just playing out of position.
“It's very different,” said Cottrill, who had 14 points. “Last year, if we got beat off the dribble, all we had to do was rotate because we had the trees down there.”
Burrell had a size advantage inside, with 6-2, 230-pound Cole Bush and 6-3, 235-pound Matt Hess. Problem was, the Bucs couldn't get past the perimeter pressure.
“The difficulty is you think you can have an advantage on the offensive end inside — if you can get it inside,” Niederberger said. “They make it hard because they pressure you so much.”
After three upsets in the WPIAL finals Friday, Beaver Falls delivered the first blowout. The Tigers scored 15 points before Burrell got its first basket, by Bush with 1:04 left in the first quarter. They led, 32-8, at halftime and by as many as 30.
“It felt good to come out from the jump and get up on them,” said Cook, who scored a game-high 20 points. “When our defense is rolling, our offense is rolling, too.”
Beaver Falls proved the best offense can be a great defense and, sometimes, the best frontcourt is a great backcourt.
Great players may graduate but tradition never does, especially when your tradition is great defense.