Imani Christian comes alive, speeds past Neighborhood Academy for WPIAL repeat

Thursday, February 29, 2024 | 6:44 PM

The Neighborhood Academy Bulldogs entered the Petersen Events Center with the same goal in mind that their counterpart, Imani Christian, had a year prior: winning an elusive WPIAL Class A boys basketball title.

In their first finals appearance, the Bulldogs got off to a high-energy start that held up through the first quarter, but it quickly vanished as the Saints flipped a switch, turning into an automatic scoring machine intent on keeping its crown.

Imani Christian rolled to a resounding 78-49 victory to claim its second consecutive WPIAL title.

“I don’t know if you can put this into words yet. I have to wait until later tonight to really reflect,” Imani coach Khayree Wilson said. “God couldn’t have wrote a better story. A kid that graduated from Imani Christian Academy, started his coaching career at Imani Christian Academy, now winning my first WPIAL championship at Imani Christian Academy is a blessing.”

Even with some major roster changes, in players and height, from last year’s gold-winning squad, Imani Christian had no problem dominating in their classification.

“We changed a little bit of philosophy of the way we play, so it doesn’t matter if we have bigs or don’t have bigs because we are going to play fast regardless,” Wilson said.

In just its fourth year in the WPIAL, Neighborhood Academy’s postseason run came with a lot of firsts, including a march to The Pete. Despite coming up on the wrong end of the title matchup, the Bulldogs, a team with a young roster, will use this as a stepping stone for next year.

“It was amazing to see people buy tickets and gear,” junior Courtney Wallace said. “Seeing people make posters in art class, getting endless calls, endless texts is very important. We weren’t at this level three years ago. Our goal was to keeping going and finally get to The Pete and we got here, so next year hopefully we can get here (and win).”

Avery Wesley, a 6-foot senior, orchestrated a key performance, dropping in 16 points and adding a team-high eight rebounds. Fellow senior Nate Brazil recorded a team-high 17 points.

Even with crucial performances from Wesley and Brazil, RJ Sledge, a now three-time WPIAL champion — two with Imani and one as a freshman with Bishop Canevin — served as the catalyst for Imani. The junior guard has thrived in the postseason with the Saints, averaging 15 points in five games, and that continued with 16 points, five rebounds and a game-high six steals.

“I play defense first,” Sledge said “Offense comes second. That’s where my energy is, so I get all my points off defense and fast-break layups.”

It was the start that a Bulldogs team could only dream of as their two leaders lifted them to a 10-3 lead with top scorer Courtney Wallace sending in a pair of jumpers and Kedron Gilmore draining a pair of triples.

The Saints could not get one to fall in the first six minutes, in large part to the Bulldogs’ defense and Junior Onwubiko’s operations in the paint that included two blocks.

Then, Wallace, a Yale commit averaging 21 points a game, sent in a triple from downtown to extend the Bulldogs lead to 15-11 to close out the first quarter. Wallace, trying to put the Bulldogs on his back, finished with a game-high 28 points and nine rebounds.

“It showed the work put in,” Wallace said. “It was a great experience to go out there and play.”

That dream that came to life for Neighborhood Academy ended abruptly, though, as the Bulldogs were startled awake by an inspired Imani Christian bunch.

Imani Christian quickly turned the game on its head with a 13-2 run fostered by the entire roster as 10 different Saints contributed buckets before the half. Turnovers also plagued the Bulldogs as they logged 26 in the contest.

“After the first quarter, we started playing to their speed. We weren’t playing to our speed,” Wallace said. “Our game is kind of slower. We got a lot of bigger guys, so we don’t push it out on the fast break as much as them.

Coming into the matchup, Neighborhood Academy looked to avoid a three-game season sweep at the hands of Imani, but the Saints found a way to spoil those plans.

“The biggest thing for me is we had a gameplan coming in and we got away from it,” Neighborhood coach Jordan Marks said. “I take full responsibility for the loss.”

For Sledge, he admits that it was more of their team tightening up defensively rather than pouring the ball in that led to the turnaround.

“It was really the defense. Once we got stops then we knew it was over. We can score anytime,” he said.

“It was a matter of getting the nerves out,” Wesley added. “Once we start clicking, it was over.”

With strong support, Sledge’s slippery approach led to a variety of takeaways and eventual scores. That was highlighted by the 5-foot-11 junior’s sneaky steal on Wallace and finished by an impressive driving layup with the left hand to make it 33-24.

For the Bulldogs, it was difficult to contain a player like Sledge and the firepower that Imani has.

“We were in a matchup that prepared for that,” junior Shamar Simpson said. “His a very good guard, him and Brazil. They are able to punish defenders in the paint. We guarded it well until they hit a couple of shots.”

Triples by Wesley, Sledge and I’Zayah Bradshaw capped of an awe-inspiring second quarter that saw the Saints outscore the Bulldogs by 22 points, while shooting 13 for 19 (68.4%) from the field, along with adding five 3-pointers.

“You step out here, you want to play big, you want to play strong, and it was like, ‘Guys, settle down. Remember who we are and what we do,’ and that’s exactly what they did,” Wilson said

It was much of the same to open the third quarter with Sledge serving as the catalyst with two driving layups. He was accompanied by three treys from Wesley as they ignited another commanding stretch, this time running up 14 unanswered points. Wesley contributed 16 points on four triples.

“It’s always good when you see the ball go through the hoop. It gives you a lot of confidence,” Wesley said.

In the previous two matchups between the adversaries, Imani handily beat the Bulldogs by more than 16 points. On the biggest stage, the Saints lead grew to more than 30 in the third on a Sledge free throw, initiating a running clock.

“If you looked at our schedule, our schedule was pressure. This right here wasn’t pressure,” Wilson said. “It’s definitely hard to beat a team three times, but whenever you lock in and know who you are and stay consistent, we felt more comfortable and confident in the game.”

With the Bulldogs trying to throw together whatever fight they had left, Wallace was at the front of it as he scored seven points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter.

However, Imani Christian was too much to handle as the Saints cruised to its second consecutive title, finishing 27 for 53 (50.9%) from the field while adding nine triples.

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