11th-seeded Ellwood City knocks off No. 1 South Allegheny in WPIAL championship shocker

Monday, March 15, 2021 | 6:51 PM

Joe Roth described his feelings succinctly.

“It’s awesome to make history for Ellwood City,” he said.

Not only did he and his Wolverines teammates win the first WPIAL boys basketball championship in school history Monday, but how they did it will be talked about for a long time in their hometown.

The 11th-seeded Wolverines completed their improbable run through the Class 3A playoffs with a 53-50 victory over No. 1 South Allegheny in the finals at North Allegheny.

Ellwood City defeated the top three seeds in the tournament — South Allegheny, Neshannock and Shady Side Academy — to become the first double-digit seed to win a WPIAL boys basketball title since West Allegheny’s Cinderella run as a 16th seed in 2007.

The Wolverines left North Allegheny and headed for a parade in their honor in downtown Ellwood City after the victory.

“I would expect the entire town to be there,” Wolverines coach Steve Antuono Sr. said. “These are great kids, and they all have a great support system. This is a product of great families and great people letting me coach and supporting me.”

The last time Ellwood City played in a final was in 1986 when Dan Aloi, the school’s all-time leading scorer, dueled with former Blackhawk and Pitt star and current Arizona head coach Sean Miller in a 71-70 win for the Cougars.

Monday’s game was another instant classic, and this time, the Wolverines found a way to finish on top.

Steve Antuono Jr. connected on the front end of a one-and-one to give Ellwood City a 51-50 lead with 45 seconds remaining. Then after an empty possession from South Allegheny, Alexander Roth made a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left.

Alexander Roth scored 19 points and Joe Roth had 17.

“He’s our best free-throw shooter, so we had to have him get the ball on the inbounds,” Joe Roth said about his older brother. “He makes them when it matters.”

Antonio Epps had a 3-pointer bounce off the rim in the final seconds that would’ve tied the game.

“I saw it hit the front rim, and I just hoped it didn’t catch the rim again and go in,” Joe Roth said. “Then I saw it go to the left, and I went for the rebound and so did my brother and he got it. Then I jumped for joy, because I knew we were champions.”

The game featured nine lead changes.

South Allegheny, which was in the championship game for the first time in school history, took a 24-22 lead into halftime. The Gladiators used a 10-0 run in the third quarter to pull ahead 36-26, but Ellwood City responded with a 9-0 run of its own.

From there, neither team led by four points again.

South Allegheny led 48-44 midway through the fourth but was outscored 6-2 in the final four minutes.

“We were just a little too loose with the ball and didn’t take care of it well enough in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter, to win the game,” Gladiators coach Tony DiCenzo said. “There were a handful of possessions down the stretch where if we would have executed and got a shot attempt, we would have had a chance to win, but credit to them. They defended well and made plays and deserved to win the game.”

Ellwood City never subbed the entire game. They rode with the starting five of the Roth brothers, Steve Antuono Jr., Milo Sesti and Ryan Gibbons.

“I was just trying not to lose the game,” Antuono Sr. said. “I hung on to our zone as long as I could before we went to man-to-man because we didn’t sub at all. It’s nothing against my subs, but it was just a gut feeling. Our bench players are all team guys and they’ve been through this. They’re all happy right now with that gold medal on their neck.”

Omar Faulkner led the Gladiators with 18 points and six blocks. He was a catalyst defensively and offensively after picking up a pair of fouls in the first couple minutes.

“He’s a dominant player and a major reason why we’ve had success the last two years,” DiCenzo said. “He’s usually the most athletic and tallest player on the floor. He dominates offensively and defensively around the rim and is probably one of the best shot blockers I’ve ever seen in high school basketball.

“He wasn’t able to impact the game like he usually does around the rim due to the early fouls. He’s usually good for a couple more blocks a game, but after those two early fouls, he was a little hesitant, which is understandable. He’s a great player, and it’s a shame to see his career come to an end.”

The Wolverines’ season will continue in the PIAA playoffs Saturday against either District 9 champion Brookville or District 5 champion Chestnut Ridge.

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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