Baldwin upends No. 1 Mt. Lebanon to reach 1st WPIAL final in 39 years

Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | 11:29 PM

Last week, Baldwin defeated North Allegheny in a boys Class 6A quarterfinal to end an eight-game postseason losing streak by winning their first playoff game in 21 years.

It only took the Highlanders four days to win another one.

Another Baldwin bucket list item was taken care of Tuesday when the Highlanders edged top seed Mt. Lebanon, 54-52, to advance to the school’s first WPIAL boys basketball championship game in 39 years.

The last time purple power played for gold was when Baldwin fell to Latrobe in the 1985 4A title game, 67-59.

“When we first walked into this gym, we had over a hundred students and they had four. It was crazy,” Baldwin coach Jeff Ackermann said. “I can’t say enough about our students. They’ve embraced this team. They’re passionate about this team. We had about four or five student buses and sold over 160 student tickets and they came in droves.”

While purple power was evident in the stands, the South Hills rivals meeting for the third time this year played to a 10-10 tie through one quarter.

The Blue Devils, who swept the season series, winning by 23 and five points, took their first lead early in the second quarter and built it to a five-point advantage by halftime.

The third quarter was more of the same with each team taking runs with little change, and by the end of three, Mt. Lebanon led, 38-32.

Baldwin came out flying, scoring the first 10 points of the fourth quarter.

“I was really proud in the second half of how aggressive we were,” Ackermann said. “We had a million charge calls on us and we just kept attacking. Nate Wesling just took it over.

While Wesling led the charge for the Highlanders in that big run, he also picked up his fourth foul with 6:20 left in regulation. Despite the fouls, Ackermann left the junior in the game.

“I had to. I couldn’t take him out,” Ackermann said. “He said he was cooking and he was cooking, so we let him go.”

What did Ackermann tell his team before the fourth quarter?

“I felt like we were better,” he said. “We kept saying all year we were the better team and they beat us twice and I told them we had to come out and play hard, be aggressive and attack. We can’t worry about fouls, just play the game.”

Baldwin missed four straight foul shots in the waning minutes to allow Mt. Lebanon to tie the game; however, the combo of Wesling and senior Nate Richards sealed the deal down the stretch, going 9 for 9 from the free-throw line.

“Give them credit,” Mt. Lebanon coach Joey David said. “We wanted to stop Wesling and he found ways to get wide open. We just didn’t take care of the ball with 14 turnovers and they hit some shots.”

One of the keys to victory for the Highlanders was stopping Blue Devils sophomore Liam Sheely, who in the two previous meetings this season scored a combined 47 points. On Tuesday, he was limited to four points.

“I said to the guys before we left, in the two games combined, Liam Sheely scored 61 percent of their points against us,” Ackermann said. “I said we have to take him away and make one of their other guys beat us. We really guarded hard.”

Senior Riley Farabaugh had a big game for Mt. Lebanon, scoring 19 points, most of them by powering his way down low. Senior Brody Barber added 14 points.

Mt. Lebanon falls to 19-5 and now must bounce back as it hosts defending champion Central Catholic on Thursday in the 6A consolation game with the third and final playoff spot from District 7 at stake.

“We don’t know much about Central Catholic, but we’ll wing it” David said. “I like (the quick turnaround) because we don’t have time to sulk.”

Wesling had a game-high 25 points for the Highlanders while Richard scored 12 and sophomore Max Marzina added 11 points.

“Max Marzina had some big steals, Nate Richards some big hits, and Matt Schenk with a big bucket,” Ackermann said. “It was a team effort for sure.”

The Highlanders have never won a boys basketball district crown and will be making their second appearance in the finals.

“I’m really proud,” Ackermann said. “We felt like we were good enough last year and didn’t get it done. Even two years ago, we thought we could get there. Now we’re there.”

Baldwin improvers to 18-6 and will face Section 2 rival Upper St. Clair in the rubber game of their three-game series this season at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“We’re the uninvited guests,” Ackermann said. “Everybody thought this was going to be Lebo and St. Clair. There’s no pressure on us at all because we’re not supposed to be there. We’re rolling in there Saturday night ready to go.”

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