With tiny enrollment but tons of talent, Imani Christian claims PIAA Class A basketball crown

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Thursday, March 23, 2023 | 4:28 PM


HERSHEY — One of the smallest high schools in the state won the biggest basketball trophy in Pennsylvania, yet few will call this an underdog story.

Imani Christian has a tiny enrollment, but the East Hills private school is big in basketball talent. This was evident when 6-foot-11 sophomore Alier Maluk took a pass off the backboard and punctuated Thursday’s championship with a late alley-oop dunk as the WPIAL champion Saints defeated Berlin Brothersvalley, 81-64, in the PIAA Class A final at Giant Center in Hershey.

The school is the second-smallest in the WPIAL, but saw an influx of talented players in recent years.

“This is super big for our community,” Imani Christian coach Omar Foster said. “We need a winning spirit in our community. All the love that we get, that’s what these kids strive off of. We don’t have the biggest facilities. We don’t have the best training. But what we do give our kids is love, and they’re fine with that.”

Imani Christian (23-6) had three scorers in double figures, led by Maluk with 22 points, as the Saints’ defense converted turnovers into baskets to win its first state title. Fellow sophomores Avery Wesley had 16 points and Dame Givner added 15.

The team forced 19 turnovers in all and turned those extra chances into 28 points.

“Defense is our identity,” Foster said. “We feel that if we play defense, we can win any game. That’s what we’ve been teaching from the beginning of the year.”

The turnovers fueled Imani’s first-half offense and the Saints reached halftime with a 15-point lead. They finished with 14 steals, including eight in the first half.

“Defense is everything,” said Maluk, who’s ranked as one of the nation’s top sophomore prospects. “My guys came out and played the hardest. Anybody can score. Locking down is key to the game.”

Imani’s success this winter has made the team a lightning rod for criticism in the ongoing public-private debate, particularly since the team added a number of transfers in recent years. The Saints’ win continued a trend in the state’s smallest classification where private schools have dominated.

District 5 champion Berlin Brothersvalley (26-3), a Somerset County public school, lost in the state finals for the second time in three years. Pace Prosser led the Mountaineers with 23 points, Ryan Blubaugh had 13 and Craig Jarvis added 12.

Berlin coach Tanner Prosser waded into the debate Thursday by referencing critical comments made here a year ago by two WPIAL coaches who lost in the finals.

“I figure if (New Castle coach) Ralph Blundo and (Quaker Valley’s) Mike Mastroianni say that it’s not fair, and (PIAA executive director) Bob Lombardi tells them that it’s sour grapes, he sure doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say,” Prosser said.

However, Prosser insisted that any fault rests with the PIAA, not Imani, for the playoff system that forces public and private schools to compete for championships.

“A ton of credit to Imani’s players and their coaching staff,” Prosser said. “Their kids have developed their skills. Those kids get better. They play really hard. They’re really well-coached. To me, it’s a PIAA decision that I can’t control. All I can control is how hard my kids play, and I was really, really proud of them tonight.”

Imani’s lead was three points early in the second quarter before the Saints went on an 18-6 run. A 3-pointer by Wesley sparked the run and a three-point play by junior Virgil Hall gave it fuel. Imani led 37-22 once the run ended just before halftime.

The Saints played much of the second quarter without Maluk, who was sidelined with two fouls. But the team’s young star had a strong start with a 12-point first quarter.

Maluk went 8 for 11 from the field overall, including a four-point play in the first quarter when he was fouled on a step-back 3. He added a highlight reel dunk with one minute left in the fourth, when Givner gave him an alley-oop pass off the backboard.

“This means a lot to a small community,” Maluk said of Imani, which opened in 1993. “Thirty-year anniversary and you get a state title. It’s a blessing.”

This is Foster’s sixth season as Imani’s coach. He’s heard the criticism from some public school opponents but has largely stayed out of that debate.

“I try not to feed into anything negative,” Foster said. “I don’t want to get into that. My kids are great kids that go to a school that’s affordable to them. They come out and play basketball. I don’t want to get into the private and public thing too much. I’m just trying to coach winning basketball, and we’re also trying to build young men. It’s not just about basketball to us.”

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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