Imani Christian dominates rematch with Union, earns 1st trip to PIAA basketball finals

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Monday, March 20, 2023 | 11:57 PM


The words of an opposing coach and heated talk about public vs. private wasn’t what ultimately motivated Imani Christian for Monday night’s playoff win.

The Saints want a state title.

All five starters scored in double figures including a team-high 20 points from 6-foot-11 sophomore Alier Maluk as Imani Christian defeated Union, 72-40, in a PIAA Class A semifinal at North Allegheny that finished with a running clock.

The game was a rematch from the WPIAL finals earlier this month. After that game, Union coach Mark Stanley described the matchup as “not fair,” sparking an online debate about whether public and private schools should compete for the same high school championships.

“We might’ve let it motivate us a little bit, but other than that, coach has his opinion. That’s fine. He’s allowed,” Imani coach Omar Foster said Monday. “We just want to win.”

WPIAL champion Imani Christian (22-6) advances to the state finals for the first time in school history. District 5 champion Berlin Brothersvalley (28-2) awaits the Saints in the PIAA finals at 2 p.m. Thursday at Giant Center in Hershey.

“It’s super big,” said Foster, a sixth-year coach. “It’s a blessing. We worked hard, we prayed for this moment, and it came true. Our hard work came true.”

Stanley downplayed the impact of the criticism he shared March 2 at Petersen Events Center. After that 23-point loss, Stanley said he was unhappy that Imani had added a number of transfers in the past year.

However, Stanley said his words then didn’t change Monday’s outcome.

“Like I told my kids, you can use it as motivation all you want, but once the ball tipped up, that’s out the window,” Stanley said. “If you’re in the western finals and need a clip of me saying something, then what are you doing here? I knew they were going to be motivated because the western finals were on the line. They didn’t need extra.”

The Saints led 22-9 after one quarter and were ahead 17 points at halftime. Their lead increased to 30 in the fourth quarter, keeping the clock running for the final two minutes under the mercy rule.

Sophomore R.J. Sledge scored 16 points, sophomore Dame Givner had 13, junior Virgil Hall had 12 and junior Avery Wesley added 10. But the tone was set early by Maluk, a major-college recruit who towered over everyone on Union’s roster.

Ranked by Rivals.com as the 16th-best sophomore prospect in the country, Maluk showed his versatility with a couple of 3-pointers, a handful of layups and one powerful dunk. Maluk went 9 for 12 shooting overall, helped Imani win the rebounding battle by 10 and added a few blocks.

“He had the one dunk and then he followed up with a 3,” Stanley said. “He’s got a unique skill set. That why (colleges) are looking at him.”

Maluk had nine of Imani’s first 19 points.

“’Big 12,’ that’s what he does,” said Foster, calling Maluk by his jersey number. “When he gets going, it’s hard to contain him.”

Union (25-6) was trying to match the success of the school’s football team, which reached the state finals in the fall. A number of athletes overlap between the two rosters including senior Matt Stanley, who scored a team-high 14 points.

But the Scotties shot just 29% from the field.

“We were trying to control tempo a little bit, but they make it tough,” coach Mark Stanley said. “They’re so good defensively, they’ve got rim protectors, it’s not easy.”

Union found itself in an early hole when Imani scored the first five points and raced to a 17-5 lead. The Saints led 22-9 after the first quarter, 41-24 at half and 51-36 after three.

Maluk and Hall, a 6-9 junior, combined for 21 first-half points. In the WPIAL finals, Imani was led by its guards, but this time the Saints’ big men took over.

“For me, that’s always the game plan,” Foster said. “It’s just sometimes your guards will get out there and get a little ball-happy. If they’re making shots, it’s hard for me to yell at them. I’m always looking to go inside and utilize our ‘bigs’ first.

“That’s the most dominant part of our team.”

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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