Aliquippa finds ‘happy balance,’ tops Avonworth for 3rd time in PIAA quarterfinals

Wednesday, March 16, 2022 | 11:38 PM

After missing a few long jumpers in the first quarter, Aliquippa’s D.J. Walker understood why he was being called to the bench and the junior didn’t argue.

“He knows,” said Quips coach Nick Lackovich, who wanted his players to work for better shots. “I said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to ….’ But before I could even finish my sentence, he said, ‘I know. I know. I know.’”

Walker proved he was listening. The 6-foot guard had two points in the first quarter and finished with a game-high 22 as Aliquippa worked the ball inside Wednesday night in a 64-49 victory over Avonworth in a PIAA Class 3A quarterfinal at New Castle.

The Quips made six 3s, including three by sophomore Brandon Banks and two by Walker. But they also found routes to the rim that let them defeat the Antelopes for the third time this season.

Banks finished with 15 points.

“I was falling in love with the 3-point shot, and I needed to attack more,” Walker said. “That’s what I ended up doing, and we ran away with it.”

Walker went 7 for 11 shooting over the final three quarters, including consecutive layups in the third as Aliquippa pushed its lead to 10 points.

“You’ve got to find that happy balance,” Lackovich said. “You can’t keep jacking up (shots). A couple of 3s. A couple of nice drives. He’s dynamite getting to the hoop. … I wish he would just get to the hoop all the time.”

Walker also delivered one of the team’s sharpest passes, a no-look pass that gave teammate Nick Good an open layup. In all, the Quips scored 38 points in the paint despite Avonworth’s height advantage.

They took a 29-25 lead late in the second quarter and never trailed after halftime.

“Our game plan was to keep them out (of the paint),” Avonworth coach Mike Mancuso said. “They do a really nice job of passing and sharing the basketball. I don’t think they get enough credit for that.”

Avonworth lost twice in the regular season to the Quips, 60-47 and 63-53.

The win advances Aliquippa (20-8) to the state semifinals for the first time since winning the PIAA title in 2016, the final season of Lackovich’s first stint as coach. The Quips play South Allegheny (20-7) in a semifinal Saturday at a site and time to be determined.

“I’m hoping to make it three state finals appearances in (four) years,” said Lackovich, who also led Aliquippa to Hershey in 2015, and returned as coach last season.

Avonworth (20-8) was trying to add another achievement to its list of unexpected postseason successes. The Antelopes, who finished third in their section, reached the WPIAL finals for the first time since 1962.

“When you do things for the first time in school history or for the first time in 60 years, it’s pretty neat,” Mancuso said.

Avonworth freshman Rowan Carmichael scored a team-high 16 points, senior David Kujawinski had 11 and senior Jordan Kolenda added 10.

The teams were tied 11-11 after one quarter, and Aliquippa held a slim 29-25 lead at half.

Avonworth stayed close into the second half. Kujawinski fueled their early offense with nine points in the first quarter. There were five ties and three lead changes in the first half with the last coming on a jumper by Banks in the final minute to lead 26-25.

Banks then ended the half with a last-second 3-pointer, sending the Quips to the locker room with a four-point lead.

“They just hit some big shots when they needed to that got us down,” Mancuso said. “Their (routine) in the past was that once they got the lead, they were going to hold it a little bit and make us work. They got us uncomfortable with the lead.

“Once it got to eight or nine, we had to change things up. That’s when we had some trouble.”

Aliquippa stretched its lead with a 10-2 run early in the third quarter. The run included five consecutive points by Walker with two layups and a free throw. The Quips led 39-29 with three minutes left in the third.

Avonworth rallied late in the quarter with a jumper by Carmichael and two free throws by Kolenda to cut the lead to 41-36 after three.

In the fourth, Aliquippa pulled away with layups. The Quips outscored Avonworth, 23-13, in the final quarter with 18 points in the paint. Banks and Walker made consecutive driving layups with about five minutes left that pushed the lead back to 10.

“Everybody was sharing the basketball,” Walker said. “When everybody is scoring and everybody is going, nobody can stop us.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .

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