Expectations keep rising for Highlands girls after win over Greensburg Salem

Thursday, January 12, 2023 | 10:54 PM

Highlands girls basketball coach Shawn Bennis used the word “discipline” a lot when he addressed his team after Thursday night’s game.

His voice echoed in the hallway outside the locker room beneath the gym floor at Greensburg Salem.

Bennis was as pleased as he was relieved after a tight, 54-52 win over Greensburg Salem, his team’s fifth victory in a row.

But he wanted more.

He thinks his team can be something special.

“If we’re more focused and disciplined, it can lead us to our goal,” said Bennis, the former Highlands and Burrell boys coach. “We have a very talented group of girls, but we know we can be even better. We’re at our best when we’re sharing the ball and defending.

“We got some stops there at the end and rebounded in the fourth quarter.”

The goal Bennis spoke of? That would be the team’s first section title since 1975.

The team went 19-5 last year and lost in the quarterfinals after finishing second to Knoch in the section.

Highlands (8-4, 4-1) is now a game back of North Catholic for the lead in Section 1-4A as it builds toward another section run.

“It’s been nice to see us evolve from last year,” said Highlands guard Jocelyn Bielak, who had a team-high 16 points, including three first-quarter 3-pointers. “We’re doing a lot of the little things: diving for loose balls, getting rebounds. … We’re going for it.

“This was our biggest road win.”

The Golden Rams overcame a 28-point game from Golden Lions’ center Kaitlyn Mankins, who also pulled down 15 rebounds.

The game had 15 lead changes and nine ties.

The Golden Lions (9-4, 2-3), who have lost three in a row after winning eight straight and have fallen out of the Trib HSSN top five rankings, last led at 48-46 on a layup by Mankins.

The lead never got above five points. Some costly turnovers were a problem for the Golden Lions.

“We knew this would be a tough game,” Golden Lions coach Rick Klimchock said. “We had some key turnovers that hurt us. Highlands has a nice team. They won 19 games last year and have four key players back. They’re better in person than what you see on film.

“The fourth-quarter turnovers hurt us, but we had a lull in the second quarter,” Klimchock added. “That happened in the third quarter at Knoch the other night. We have to learn how to play in close games.”

Katelyn Myers added 12 points for the Golden Rams.

Greensburg Salem had a 15-12 lead after the first quarter, but Highlands went ahead 27-22 at the half thanks to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the backboard by Zoey Celko, who had three 3s for nine points.

Highlands used kick-out passes to make seven 3s, five in the first half.

“That was a big shot,” Klimchock said.

And it came off a bad turnover by Greensburg Salem, which had most of its starters on the junior varsity team last year.

Still, Mankins scored 12 in the third quarter before Tyarah Woody completed a three-point play to give the Golden Rams a 44-42 lead to open the fourth.

A pair of turnovers near midcourt plagued Greensburg Salem and tossed momentum the other way. Bielak scored off a steal, and Shelby Wojcik finished an out-of-bounds play to give Highlands a 50-48 lead.

Free throws allowed Highlands to stay in front in a less offensive fourth, including two from Wojcik to make it 53-49 with 50.8 seconds remaining.

Highlands made 13 of 16 free throws.

Mankins scored inside with five-tenths of a second left to cut it to 54-52.

“Greensburg Salem came down from 5A, so you know they have gone againt bigger, physical teams,” Bennis said. “Our girls are experiencing some success and learning. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Ashlan Price had nine points for Greensburg Salem, hitting three 3s.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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