Devin Whitlock walks the walk, leads Belle Vernon past South Park

Monday, March 8, 2021 | 9:27 PM

If a team is game-planning to face the Belle Vernon boys basketball team, one of the first things a coach should do is give his team a commandment: “Thou shalt not chirp or trash talk Devin Whitlock.”

As much talking as the Leopards’ star junior may have done during his team’s WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinal matchup with section rival South Park on Monday, he took his share of jawing from the Eagles as well.

All that did was throw gasoline on the fire.

Whitlock poured in a game-high 31 points, including 11 straight at one point in the third quarter, as Belle Vernon rolled to a 78-52 win over the Eagles to advance to the WPIAL semifinals. He also finished with seven steals and seven assists.

“I know he talks a little bit, too,” Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino said. “But I see a kid that’s not going to back down, and he’s out there to prove a point every time he takes the floor. Talking to him just feeds him. It energizes him. If I had to play against him, I’d tell my team not to say anything.”

The Leopards got off to another hot start, jumping out to a 9-0 lead and forcing South Park into a timeout.

“The quick start, again, was important for us tonight,” Salvino said. “It really gave us more momentum, and our defense fed off that and was really working well.”

Zach Lemansky, who ended up with a team-high 17 points for the Eagles, got his team on the board three minutes into the game and added a three-point play to cut the Leopards’ lead to five, 11-6, with three minutes to go.

But Belle Vernon (13-1) responded with a 6-0 run and ended the quarter leading 19-8.

Quinton Martin scored half of his 12 points in the opening eight minutes, but his biggest contribution came on the glass.

The 6-foot-3 freshman finished with a double-double, adding 16 rebounds to his point total.

“I had him start this game because I thought he was the person we needed out there with those other four,” Salvino said. “He had a ton of rebounds in the first half, and he was out there being disruptive on defense, blocking shots. … He was doing everything.”

The biggest role Martin played was being at the top of the Leopards’ 1-2-2 press.

“He’s so quick, so long,” Salvino said. “He’s intimidating when he’s out there. He’s another kid with that competitive drive that he’s not going to back down.”

The Leopards outscored the Eagles 17-4 over the first five minutes of the second quarter. The last seven of those belonged to Whitlock, who hit a pair of 3s. He hit five from behind the arc in the game.

“It’s something that I want to keep working on but really haven’t much,” Whitlock said of his outside shooting. “I like to get in the gym and get my shots up. But I was feeling really good out there tonight with my shot.”

Harper Conroy, who finished with 10 points for South Park (9-6), scored scored all seven of his team’s points in the final three minutes of the half. The Leopards scored five straight to close out the half and carried a 43-19 lead into halftime.

Behind Whitlock’s 11 straight points in the third, Belle Vernon’s lead swelled to 60-26 as the continuous clock was activated with five minutes remaining in the quarter.

Gino Maffeo hit two 3-pointers in the quarter for South Park and Lemansky added a three-point play. Maffeo finished with 11 points for the Eagles.

Belle Vernon’s Daniel Gordon closed the third and opened the fourth by scoring 10 straight, hitting two 3-pointers in the process, as the Leopards doubled up the Eagles, 72-36, at the 6:16-mark of the final quarter.

Gordon finished with 19 points before fouling out.

“Daniel just continues to do everything we need him to,” Salvino said. “He’s scoring more now than he was, but he’s still rebounding, getting steals. … It’s nice to watch him and all these kids play together. They’re so unselfish and genuinely care about one another.”

As much as the jawing and chippiness existed during the games, it was nothing unexpected between the two Section 3 rivals.

“It really gets me going,” Whitlock said. “When I talk, when they talk and we’re going back and forth, that’s when I’m at my best.”

Now the Leopards will focus on No. 5 North Catholic, who will visit at 6 p.m. Thursday.

“It’s exciting to have them come here. Getting to play in front of our fans, our cheerleaders, it gets me hyped,” Whitlock said. “We still have that chip on our shoulders, though. We remember what it was like getting to the Pete last year and losing. We carry that with us. No one’s picking us to win, so we’re going to keep coming out and showing what we can do.”

“This team saw what has to happen,” Salvino said. “They’re trying to prove a point that they belong up there with the best teams. They’re feeding off of that, and they’re showing how good and dangerous they can be.”

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