Aquinas Academy fends off upset-minded St. Joseph, rolls into Class A title game

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Monday, February 28, 2022 | 9:13 PM


The St. Joseph girls basketball team held a great deal of momentum entering Monday’s WPIAL Class A semifinal against Section 3 rival Aquinas Academy at North Hills High School.

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.”

Aquinas, in only its fifth year in the WPIAL, improved to 14-6 overall and will face No. 7 Bishop Canevin/No. 3 Union at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Petersen Events Center.

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 just wanted to keep the pressure up, get them dribbling into our traps, and have them make bad passes and bad decisions and get deflections,” Lebakken said.

The pressure helped turn the Spartans miscues into points.

“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 committed 35 turnovers and was 3 for 11 from the free throw line.

Aquinas used an 8-0 run to open the third quarter to extend its lead to 36-13.

“We knew who they were. We knew they were a tough team. We just had to go out there and play our game and play good defense,” Russell said.

The Spartans rallied from down 19 points in the third quarter against Rochester, but Monday’s deficit turned out to be more than they could overcome.

Laura Richthammer, who added 12 points, connected on a pair of free throws to give Aquinas a 42-17 lead early in the fourth.

St. Joseph scored the final 12 points of the game, led by 3-pointers from Spinelli, senior Trinity Lockwood-Morris and sophomore Montana Geible.

Aquinas turned the ball over five times in the fourth and 18 times for the game.

“The girls were frustrated, but I knew they weren’t going to quit playing,” Jones said.

Sophomore Anna Kreinbrook pulled down nine rebounds for St. Joseph, while senior Emilia Kartsonas recorded 10 rebounds for Aquinas.

“This is huge that we keep practicing with two more weeks of basketball, advancing in the playoffs like this,” Jones said. “It’s nothing but positives. Nobody thought we would be here now anyway. We just have to keep working and keep getting better. That’s all we can do.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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