After 5 decades away from WPIAL, Ligonier Valley boys win playoff opener

Monday, March 1, 2021 | 10:01 PM

The open tournament format the WPIAL is using for its basketball postseason has allowed some schools to participate for the first time in a while.

The Brownsville boys basketball team was playing in a WPIAL playoff game for the first time in three years. However, its Class 3A preliminary round opponent was making its first District 7 playoff appearance in over 52 years.

Ligonier Valley made up for lost time as the No. 17 Rams blew open a close game with a huge second quarter on their way to a convincing 80-41 wing-clipping of the No. 16 Falcons on Monday night.

Trailing 16-15 after the first quarter, Ligonier Valley scored the first 18 points of the second quarter and ended up going into the locker room leading 43-22.

“I think it was a lot of nerves to start off with,” Ligonier Valley first-year boys coach Tim Gustin said. “We have a lot of younger kids that haven’t been in this situation before. Our teams have been in the playoffs, the state playoffs before, but these kids haven’t. So I think there was a feeling-out process for some of them.”

The Rams closed out their 51-year run in District 6 last year with a third straight appearance in the District 6 Class 3A championship game and a final record of 23-4.

However, the first year in the WPIAL combined with playing during a pandemic affected the Rams. They entered the postseason with a 4-10 overall record after losing three of their final four games and suffering through a five-game losing streak in early February.

But all of that was a distant memory for Ligonier Valley thanks to the play of Matthew Marinchak.

The 6-foot-2 junior was all over the place throughout the game. He led the team with 30 points, including six long range 3-pointers, but he also showed why he leads the team in assists with several strong passes to set up teammates.

He also was a demon on defense with great anticipation in stepping in the lanes of Falcons passes and quick hands to swat the ball away and force plenty of Brownsville turnovers.

“We put him on one of the best offensive players every time; he’s one of our best defenders,” Gustin said. “He rebounds. He sees the floor very, very well. He’s always working it around to find someone open. He probably contributed on 60% of our points tonight. He’s a phenomenal player, and he makes my job a whole lot easier.

Marinchak was hardly alone in enjoying a strong game for visiting Ligonier Valley.

Junior Jaicob Hollick scored 15 points while senior Isaac Neidbalson added 12 points for the Rams.

Unlike the Brownsville girls basketball team that ended a playoff win drought of 13 years with a victory on Saturday, the Falcons boys team could not end its seven-year itch since its last playoff victory in 2014.

They started strong, but foul trouble for junior guard Eric Allen and junior forward Ayden Teeter did not help. Both were on the bench to start the second quarter when Ligonier Valley started to dominate.

Teeter was the only Falcons player to reach double figures with 10 points. The Falcons managed only 25 points over the final three quarters after taking a 16-15 lead at the end of quarter one.

With the win, Ligonier Valley earns a third meeting with section foe and top seed South Allegheny in the first round on Thursday.

The Gladiators beat the Rams twice in the regular season, 59-25 and 62-47.

“They’re ridiculously athletic,” Gustin said of South Allegheny. “It’s hard to stop them. I’m going to start watching film on the ride home and try to come up with some amazing plan to slow them down. First WPIAL win, we got pizza coming and we’re going to enjoy it here, but (Tuesday), we’re back to work.”

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