11th-seeded Ellwood City stuns Neshannock, makes 1st WPIAL final since 1986

Thursday, March 11, 2021 | 9:51 PM

From the opening tip, Ellwood City coach Steve Antuono Sr. paced the sidelines watching the game with intensity, while wearing his emotions on his sleeve.

As the time ticked off in the fourth quarter, he and his Wolverines let that emotion spill out onto the floor.

The weight of 35 years of trying to make it back to a WPIAL final came flying off their collective shoulders in a dramatic 60-51 victory at No. 2 Neshannock in the Class 3A semifinals Thursday night.

The No. 11 Wolverines won their third playoff game in a row on the road and advanced to a WPIAL final for the first time since 1986. They will play top-seeded South Allegheny at 5 p.m. Monday at North Allegheny.

“We’re not a Cinderella anymore,” Antuono Sr. said. “We’ve beaten three good teams. To beat Neshannock here on their own court is remarkable. All the credit goes to our guys. They busted their butt all week in practice. This is hands down a win for the ages.”

The Wolverines shared a celebration on the floor after the game, and Antuono Sr. shared a hug with his son, junior guard Steve Antuono Jr., at midcourt.

“We’ve been doing this together a long time,” an emotional Antuno Sr. said. “It started in the third grade, shooting into paint cans in the driveway.”

Antuono Sr. got choked up several times while speaking after the game while describing his team winning three games on the road as an underdog.

“These guys bring out the best in me,” he said. “There’s a bunch of good kids in there, and they deserve the best from me and I’m just trying to do that. This is a team. This isn’t just about my son. This is about all of those guys.”

Elwood City never trailed, but the game was tight throughout. The Wolverines never had a double-digit lead until the fourth quarter.

Freshman Joe Roth paced Ellwood City in the first half, scoring 16 of his 19 points. His older brother, Alexander Roth, was 10 of 12 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter and had 17 points. He also had a big steal and score at the buzzer at the end of the third that put Ellwood City ahead 40-38 moments after Russell Kiwat tied the game with a 3-pointer.

The Wolverines also got key contributions from Antuono Jr., who had nine points, Ryan Gibbons, who scored seven points, and Milo Sesti, who had six.

Antuono Sr. said he talked with Gibbons and Sesti at practice Wednesday night about both of them needing to step up, and he was happy with how everyone delivered.

“We are sharing the ball, and nobody cares who scores,” Antuono Sr. said “They were face guarding Steve all night. We couldn’t get him going, and it didn’t rattle anybody. They stayed the course. The free-throw shooting could have been better. I just want to thank God. It was unbelievable. There were a lot of prayers answered.”

Antuono Jr. opened the fourth with a 3-pointer that gave Ellwood City a 45-38 lead. Then Cam’Ron Owens was called for his fifth foul in the backcourt and was given a technical on his way to the bench.

Alexander Roth hit both free throws following the technical, and on the next possession, Johnpaul Mozzocio was whistled for an intentional foul for grabbing the jersey of Antuono Jr. on his way to the basket. Antuono Jr. hit one of the two free throws to give the Wolverines a 10-point lead.

Mozzocio sank a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 55-51 with 1:10 remaining, but that was as close as the Lancers got.

“One of our strengths this season has been our length,” Neshannock coach John Corey said. “Position by position, we usually have a couple inches on guys, and that’s created some chaos for other teams, but they are probably equally as long as us.

“They sat in a 3-2 zone, and that allowed them to take away some of our shots. We got some good looks, but probably not enough of them.”

Mozzocio finished with 21 points, and Kiwat scored 14. They sank four 3-pointers each. Michael Sopko had 11 points.

The Lancers, who were trying to get to the WPIAL finals for the first time since 1987, fell one game short of their goal, but Corey was proud of their effort in a historic season.

“I told our guys that it’s been a heck of a ride,” Corey said. “Did it end the way we wanted it to? No, but it was a closely matched game. A couple possessions here or there go our way, maybe we win, but Ellwood played a great game. What made this a great season is that they are great people.

“It’s a group that I was excited to watch come through for 10 years now. I knew it was going to be a special group, and they lived up to that.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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