Avonworth knocks off top-seeded Shady Side Academy to reach Class 3A finals

Saturday, February 25, 2023 | 6:00 PM

Greta O’Brien has had dreams of playing at the Petersen Events Center since watching her older sister Olivia play there with Vincentian in 2018.

Thanks to her big second half on the scoreboard and a strong collective defensive effort, she and her Avonworth teammates will have that opportunity.

O’Brien scored 15 of her game-high 17 points in the second half and the No. 4-seeded Antelopes upset top-seeded Shady Side Academy, 41-35, in the Class 3A girls basketball semifinals Saturday at Montour.

“It means so much to me,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been going to the Pete since (Olivia) played and it’s amazing that it’s happening for us. I’ve been working for this for a long time and our team has been working for this. At the beginning of the season, we had a list of goals and getting to the Pete was at the end of it. Now we’re here. It’s super exciting.”

Avonworth (18-5) will play Laurel at 3 p.m Friday for the WPIAL Class 3A title at Petersen Events Center.

Shady Side Academy (22-3) will face Neshannock in the 3A third-place game Tuesday, which will determine seeding for the state tournament.

The Antelopes will aim for their seventh district title and first since 2005.

O’Brien was at the center of a key sequence in the fourth quarter. She drove the lane and was fouled while making a basket. Then she missed the free throw, but was first to the rebound and made a layup for what turned out to be a four-point possession.

Mia Velisaris also had a key putback off a missed free throw for the Antelopes in the fourth.

“Our team worked so hard and our defense was amazing,” O’Brien said. “We just kept pushing and working together. Our communication was amazing.”

The Antelopes’ defense was stout throughout, but it was needed most in the second quarter. Avonworth hit a dry spell from the field and finished with only two points in the frame but held the Bulldogs to seven points and only trailed 16-15 at halftime.

“We take pride in our defense,” first-year Avonworth coach Nick Dizon said. “We knew we were up against a great offensive team, but if you defend, you always give yourself a chance and that’s what we did today.”

Avonworth forced 22 turnovers, which Bulldogs coach Jonna Burke said was a major factor in the outcome. Shady Side also started only one senior in Cate Sauer, and it was the first semifinal game any of the players had experienced.

“We turned the ball over too many times,” Burke said. “Against a team that plays defense as well as they do, you can’t give them the ball back on a turnover that wasn’t forced. They forced quite a few of them, though, so I have to credit their defense. I thought our defensive effort was pretty strong too. I’m really proud of the kids. We’ve come so far this season from where we were a year ago and I think our future is very bright.”

Becca Goetz added 10 points for the Antelopes and Eden Schleis scored seven, including a couple of transition baskets off steals in the first quarter.

Karis Thomas led the Bulldogs with 12 points and Maggie Spell scored 10. Shady Side will have to wait for the school’s first district title, but they hope they can make noise in the upcoming PIAA tournament.

“My job now is to refocus them and let them know that there are bigger fish to fry with the state tournament coming up,” Burke said. “Nobody in our room had won a playoff game before this season, so this is all good experience. I’m happy we get another game Tuesday. In the past, you’ve had to sit around for a week and a half and that’s pretty difficult. I’m really happy the WPIAL did (the consolation games) and I hope they continue to do it.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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