Aquinas Academy fends off upset-minded St. Joseph, rolls into Class A title game
Monday, February 28, 2022 | 9:13 PM
The No. 9 Spartans took down No. 1 Rochester on Thursday, and they hoped to do the same against the No. 4 Crusaders and also avenge a pair of section losses in the regular season.
But Aquinas, which rolled past No. 5 Monessen by 23 in the quarterfinals, didn’t change the script against its familiar foes.
The Crusaders used a big second-quarter advantage to lead by 15 at halftime and went on to advance to their first WPIAL championship game with a 42-29 victory.
“This is an amazing feeling,” said senior Elizabeth Russell, who led Aquinas with 15 points. “I never imagined when I was a freshman when we lost in the first round to Avella that we would be here my senior year. But we all worked so hard to get to where we are. We’re so excited.”
The Crusaders, with six seniors at their core, have progressed one round in the WPIAL playoffs each of the past three years. They lost in the first round three years ago before making the quarterfinals in 2020 and the semifinals last year.
“This is so special to see this group make it to the title game,” Aquinas coach Chris Lebakken said. “The group of kids we have are so amazing, both academically and athletically. They’ve worked so hard for three years with me, not just this year, to get to where they are. They played their butts off (against St. Joseph), and they deserve to play for a championship.”
Despite the loss, St. Joseph (10-14) is not done. The Spartans, by virtue of making it to the WPIAL semifinals, have qualified for the state playoffs and will return to the court next Tuesday.
“We have to look forward and forget this ever happened,” St. Joseph coach Dennis Jones said. “I don’t know what other way to do it. We can’t dwell on it because it wasn’t a good thing. As an experience just to grow from, that’s what we’ve got to hope we do.”
St. Joseph held a 7-5 lead with 2:34 left in the first quarter on a layup from sophomore Julie Spinelli. She finished the game with a team-best 14 points to go along with 14 rebounds.
But that was the last lead the Spartans held in the game.
Aquinas, which led 9-7 after the first quarter, forced 11 St. Joseph turnovers in the first and nine in the second. The Crusaders limited the Spartans to six points in the second quarter and scored 19 to lead 28-13 at the break.
“We couldn’t make layups and couldn’t make free throws,” Jones said. “I think the moment just got to us a little bit. We just didn’t play anywhere near the way we did Thursday, or last Monday (against Mapletown) for that matter. We didn’t handle the pressure well, and our inexperience showed.”
St. Joseph scored the final 12 points of the game, led by 3-pointers from Spinelli, senior Trinity Lockwood-Morris and sophomore Montana Geible.
“The girls were frustrated, but I knew they weren’t going to quit playing,” Jones said.
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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