Central Catholic grabs section title away from North Allegheny with last-second 3-point play

Friday, February 9, 2024 | 11:29 PM

Central Catholic had trailed for almost the entire game, but a layup and foul shot by sophomore Enzo Khalil with seven-tenths of a second left Friday night lifted the Vikings to a dramatic 58-57 victory over North Allegheny to win the section title.

The teams entered the section finale tied atop the standings.

And North Allegheny was eight seconds away from winning the section title itself after senior Anthony Sciote made two free throws for a 57-55 lead, but Central Catholic had one last possession.

North Allegheny used two fouls to strategically drain a few seconds off the clock. But with 4.6 seconds left, Central Catholic’s Xxavier Thomas inbounded at midcourt to senior Payton Wehner, who took a couple of dribbles, drew the defense and passed to Khalil alone on the baseline.

Khalil was fouled on the tying layup and made the free throw to give Central its first lead since a 9-8 edge in the first quarter.

“It got a little loud when I got to the free throw line,” Khalil said. “That’s all I heard, but when I got the ball, I blocked it out. I was ready for that shot.”

Khalil was one of three Central Catholic starters held scoreless in the first half, along with Thomas and Vernon Settles. But all three came through with clutch shots in the fourth quarter, baskets that proved crucial in a one-point game. Thomas had back-to-back looks at a tying 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, courtesy of a Wehner rebound in between, and Thomas hit the second attempt for a 55-55 tie.

“If you miss one, you relocate, find a new spot and shoot again,” Thomas said. “I’ve got to give all of the credit to my teammate for getting that rebound and finding me open in the corner.”

Those were Thomas’ only points.

“That just shows the trust in those kids to make plays down the stretch,” Central Catholic coach Brian Urso said of Khalil, Thomas and Settles. “That shows the trust in who wants the ball.”

Bradley Gompers led Central Catholic (13-8, 8-2) with 15 points and Wehner had 13. Gompers scored eight points in the third quarter alone, all in the paint.

The Vikings are the defending WPIAL champions and will enter the postseason as the highest seed from Section 1-6A. The brackets will be announced Monday.

Despite being defending champs, Wehner is the only significant contributor back from last year’s lineup. But these new-look Vikings are starting to look like WPIAL contenders again.

“Everybody keeps doubting us, but by winning the section, I think we can finally hush people up a little bit,” Khalil said. “We can finally tell them we’re out here and we’re ready to make our statement and were going for it all.”

Joey Dopirak scored a game-high 24 points for North Allegheny (10-12, 7-3), which finishes second in the section. Sciote had 15 points and Ty Iwanonkiw added 11.

North Allegheny, which trailed 4-3, 6-5 and 9-8 in the opening minutes, took a 18-14 lead after one quarter and didn’t trail again until the final second of the game.

NA led 31-25 at half and 43-41 after three.

Dopirak scored eight of his 24 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Tigers ahead, including two free throws with 49 seconds left for a 55-52 lead.

“It was a great game,” NA coach Dave DeGregorio said. “I’m really pleased and proud of my team’s effort and that’s what I told them. We played hard and did the things we needed to do, and today they were a little bit better.

“You can’t let it weigh on you because you have the playoffs right around the corner.”

If anything, DeGregorio questioned the timing of the foul call with only a fraction of a second left. In that situation, he said, letting the game go to overtime would be a better way to settle the battle.

“That’s a tough call to make at that point in time,” DeGregorio said.

Tied at 45 in the fourth quarter, North Allegheny pulled ahead with a quick 6-0 run. It started with four points from Dopirak followed by two free throws by Sciote to lead 51-45.

Central Catholic answered with Wehner making a 3-pointer and a driving layup, cutting North Allegheny’s lead to 51-50.

After a layup by NA’s Joseph Marquis, Settles scored on a runner seconds later for Central, cutting the margin back to one point and keeping pressure on the Tigers for the final stretch.

“When we were down six with five minutes left, I wrote on our (dry erase) board, ‘Quit,’ and I said, ‘Tell me right now, are you guys ready to quit or are we ready to fight back?’” Urso said. “All five kids looked at me and said we’re fighting back. They played until the final buzzer.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.


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