Highlands handles Belle Vernon, wins 1st WPIAL boys basketball title since 1995

Saturday, February 29, 2020 | 2:42 PM

During the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs, top-seeded Highlands has shown the capability to win in a multitude of ways.

Whether it be the post presence of Johnny Crise or the perimeter shooting of Korry Myers and Luke Cochran, the Golden Rams take whatever their opponents give them. On Saturday, at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center, the Golden Rams played their most complete game yet.

Crise dominated the paint, scoring 23 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, and Myers hit six 3-pointers as Highlands (21-3) topped sixth-seeded Belle Vernon (19-7), 72-54, to capture its first WPIAL title since 1995.

“This is definitely a great feeling,” Crise said. “The last couple of years, we have come so close to a championship. So to finally get here and show what we have, it’s a great feeling to come out on top.”

Highlands made its most recent WPIAL championship appearance in 2016. The Golden Rams lost in the semifinals the past two seasons. So when they finally got their shot to play at The Pete, they didn’t waste it.

The teams traded buckets throughout the first quarter but neither could gain a significant advantage. But just before the buzzer, Belle Vernon sophomore guard Devin Whitlock hit a 3-pointer, his ninth points of the game, to give the Leopards a 16-13 advantage.

“I just came out and tried to get the win for my team,” said Whitlock, who scored a game-high 27 points. “I was trying to stay strong, go to the hole strong and just be a good team player, and that’s how I come into every game.”

In the second quarter, the Golden Rams started to take control of the game, and it took a significant turn with about six minutes to go in the half.

Highlands was trailing 20-17 after a Whitlock layup, but Myers answered with back-to-back 3-pointers to spark a 13-2 run that gave his team a 30-22 lead with two minutes left in the half.

“That just got me going,” Myers said. “But as soon as they called the timeout, I came into the huddle and said we’re not done. We still got another half to go.”

From there, the Highlands defense took over. The Rams limited the Leopards to eight points in the second quarter and seven in the third.

At the end of the third quarter freshman guard, Jimmy Kunst made a jumper from just outside the free-throw line to give Highlands a 17-point advantage heading into the fourth.

“We just don’t stop coming,” Cochran said. “You might take a lead or make a few shots, but we don’t stop coming. We could’ve been down 30, but we won’t stop. That’s our culture. We’re gas all the time, and we don’t let up.”

Belle Vernon picked it up offensively in the final quarter, scoring 23 points, but Highlands got 11 points from Antoine McDaniel in the final quarter to cap the victory. McDaniel had 13 points for the game.

Poor 3-point shooting plagued the Leopards throughout the game. They were 4 for 27 from behind the 3-point line, and coach Joe Salvino said that was a big contributing factor to the loss.

“You gotta put the ball in the hole. That’s the name of the game,” Salvino said.

Both teams will advance to the PIAA tournament and will play March 6. Highlands will play District 10 third-place finisher Harbor Creek, and Belle Vernon will face District 9 champion Clearfield.

Watch an archived broadcast on Trib HSSN.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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