Belle Vernon boys basketball upsets Quaker Valley, clinches PIAA spot

Saturday, February 22, 2020 | 6:55 PM

Listed at 5-foot-9, Devin Whitlock was the shortest player on the floor in Saturday’s game between Quaker Valley and Belle Vernon, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in many other areas.

He has a good vertical leap, a keen eye and a feel for the big moment. He used all three attributes to make the play of the game for the Leopards.

Whitlock leaped high at halfcourt, picked off a cross-court pass and drove in uncontested for a layup to give the sixth-seeded Leopards the lead, and they held on to upset No. 3 Quaker Valley, 66-61, in the WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinals at Plum.

“I was just thinking about going and getting a bucket,” Whitlock said of his steal and score. “I just wanted to get the ball and get it in the hoop, so we could get the lead.”

The Leopards (18-6) qualified for the PIAA playoffs and advanced WPIAL semifinals for the second time in three years. They’ll play three-time defending champion New Castle on Wednesday at a site and time to be announced. Quaker Valley (17-6) qualifies for the PIAA playoffs if Belle Vernon wins the championship.

Whitlock and Mitch Pohlot sank two free throws apiece in the final 30 seconds to salt away the game.

Belle Vernon got a boost from Cameron Nusser playing just a few days after injuring his ankle in the Leopards’ first-round win over Derry.

Whitlock said the team found out Saturday morning that he was going to play.

Nusser scored 17 points and at times kept the Leopards within striking distance with clutch shooting, but he picked up his fourth foul midway through the third quarter with the Leopards trailing by six. Belle Vernon kept battling, and a pair of key shots from Pohlot got the Leopards to within two at the end of the third.

Nusser fouled out a minute into the fourth quarter with the score tied 55-51, but the Leopards again galvanized. Jared Hartman hit a layup while being fouled and sank the free throw that answered a 3-pointer by Quaker Valley’s Jack Gardinier.

“It was a total team effort,” Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino said. “The people coming off the bench did a very good job. When you play like that as a team, it goes to show you that we can rely on anybody at any given time.”

Whitlock connected on a tough fadeaway from just outside the paint that gave the Leopards four-point lead, but a 5-0 run by the Quakers capped by a pair of free throws Markus Frank put them back on top 61-60 with less than a minute remaining before Whitlock’s steal and score.

The Quakers had a few looks to take the lead that missed. They got few to tie it when they were down three but couldn’t score.

“We got the shots we wanted, and they just didn’t fall,” Quaker Valley coach Mike Mastroianni said. “We got Adou (Thiero) a shot at the top of the key, K.C. (Johns) had a couple of tough drives to the basket. We had rebounds and tips on the ball. We had the right guys taking the right shots, and they just didn’t go. We would do that again in the same order.”

The Quakers led by as many as 11 points in the first half, but the Leopards kept fighting back. Hartman hit a couple of long 3-pointers late in the second to cut the Quakers lead to 36-33 at halftime.

“They’re a good team that poses a lot of (matchup) problems,” Mastroianni said. “They have an outstanding point guard and a guy that can hit 3-pointers from about half court, and they have athletic guys around the basket.”

Frank led the Quakers with 23 points. Thiero scored 15 but was held without a field goal in the second half after canning four 3-pointers in the first half.

Pohlot and Whitlock had 14 points apiece for the Leopards, and Hartman scored 13.

In this second season with the Leopards after a long, successful tenure at Monessen, Salvino has turned a nine-win team last year into a team that’s one win from playing for a championship.

“It’s pretty special,” Salvino said. “It took a year, but the kids adapted. When you win, it makes it that much easier for the kids to start thinking about and believing what the coach is saying.”

Listen to an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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