Deer Lakes tops rival Burrell to win 2nd straight WPIAL Class 3A title

Friday, March 1, 2024 | 6:43 PM

Billy Schaeffer couldn’t quite put into words what it meant for Deer Lakes to win back-to-back WPIAL boys basketball titles and this time do so against rival Burrell.

But the wide smile on his face told the story.

“I don’t know what to say, so I’m just going to keep smiling,” he said.

Schaeffer had a game-high 20 points, and the top-seeded Lancers successfully defended their Class 3A title with a 55-49 victory over the Bucs on Friday at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center.

Winning a second consecutive district championship was a season-long goal for the Lancers (21-4), and beating the rival Bucs (16-9) made it even more special.

“A WPIAL championship against a hometown rival is really what high school basketball is all about,” Lancers guard Aiden Fletcher said. “I think it created a really great environment for this kind of game, and we were fortunate to come out on the right side.”

The final moments for the Lancers were somewhat similar to the quarterfinal and semifinal matchups they won by hitting key free throws down the stretch.

The quarterfinal against Ellwood City and the semifinal against Neshannock both went to overtime, but this time, Collin Rodgers made sure the Lancers would not need an extra frame by hitting two free throws with less than 20 seconds to go.

Before Rodgers went to the foul line, Lancers coach Albie Fletcher locked eyes with his point guard and pounded his chest to pump him up.

Deer Lakes shoots about 50% from the line as a team but was 8 for 14 in the fourth quarter in the championship game and 11 for 14 in overtime in the semifinals.

“I just told the guys that we won the WPIAL championship at the free-throw line, which is surreal because it’s been our Achilles’ heel all year,” coach Fletcher said. “Credit to these guys because we extended our practices about halfway through the season because we all agreed we had to get better at the free-throw line. They put the work in. I told them you can make free throws all game and not just at the end, but in these close games at the end, the look they have and the confidence … you couldn’t ask for a better group.”

Burrell was down 52-49 and had a chance to tie in the final minute, but a 3-pointer from Maliq Buchak bounced off the rim. Rodgers’ free throws followed the Buchak miss.

“We got an open look, but unfortunately, we didn’t have anybody underneath at the time to get a chance at a rebound,” Burrell coach Mike Fantuzzo said. “It was an open look, but it just didn’t fall for us.”

The Bucs, who pulled three upsets to get the final, were upended by Deer Lakes for the third time this season.

“It’s a sour taste,” Fantuzzo said. “They are a good team. Give them all the credit. It’s a rivalry game. Not that we want to lose any game, but it does make it a little tougher when it’s against (Deer Lakes).”

Burrell used a 13-0 run to build a 17-8 lead in the second quarter, highlighted by a couple of big baskets by Ryan Croushore and Joey Discello, but Deer Lakes stormed back with a 13-0 run of its own to close the half.

Schaeffer had seven points during the run, which gave the Lancers a 21-17 lead going into halftime.

Both teams found more offense in the third, with Burrell outscoring Deer Lakes, 23-22, in the frame.

The Lancers led Burrell, 43-40, after three quarters, and most of the game was played within five points the rest of the way.

Bucs sharpshooter Macky Bennis was limited to two points in the first half but had a huge third quarter, when he scored 11 of his team-high 17 points.

“I don’t think I was aggressive enough in the first half,” Bennis said. “I told myself to go out there and kill. They had trouble staying in front of me, and I took advantage of it.”

Rodgers finished with 12 points for Deer Lakes, which advances to play the District 10 third-place team in the PIAA first round March 9. Burrell will play the District 3 third-place team.

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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