Imani Christian says goodbye to Class A with rout of Berlin Brothersvalley, 2nd straight PIAA title

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Thursday, March 21, 2024 | 3:55 PM


HERSHEY — Imani Christian won a state title a year ago with a towering center in the middle, but this time, a couple of much smaller guards led the way.

They proved to be an even tougher matchup.

Imani Christian scored 19 straight points in one stretch Thursday afternoon thanks to a quick, attacking defense, and the Saints defended their state title with a 79-52 victory over Berlin Brothersvalley in the PIAA Class A final at Giant Center.

The Saints forced 26 turnovers, including 22 steals, and watched the clock run continuously in the fourth quarter under the mercy rule. This pairing was a rematch of last year’s state final, which Imani won by 17 points.

This time, it wasn’t that close.

“We don’t have the bigs anymore, so we have to lock down on defense,” junior R.J. Sledge said. “We take pride in defense.”

Sledge scored 22 points, Nate Brazil had 18, and the Saints built a 22-point lead by halftime. It seems crazy to think that losing a 6-foot-11 center with major college offers might make a team better, but the Saints defense could no longer rely on Alier Maluk’s shot blocking once he transferred out.

“The style of play changed a little bit,” said first-year Imani coach Khayree Wilson, who was promoted from assistant to head coach since last season. “We’re a much faster team. We’re a little bit more defensive oriented. Last year, we kind of relied a lot on Maluk defensively. But this was a chance for our guards to show that they can go out there and defend.”

Imani Christian (18-10) became the ninth WPIAL boys team to win consecutive PIAA titles. There won’t be a third matchup with Berlin Brothersvalley next year since Imani is voluntarily moving up to Class 6A.

The Saints join Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (2021, ’22), Blackhawk (1995, ‘96), Duquesne (1992, ’93), Monessen (1988, ’89), Midland (1973, ’74), Farrell (1959, ’60) and Irwin (1947, ’48 and 1953, ’54) as WPIAL teams that won consecutive state titles. Lincoln Park could accomplish the feat Thursday night against Archbishop Carroll in the 4A final.

“This is historic,” Wilson said. “It feels like we have earned our place, letting people know that we’re here, we’re competing, and we’re trying to turn this into a regular thing.”

The state title was the third individually for Sledge, who also won as a freshman with Bishop Canevin in 2022.

“I can’t even describe it,” Sledge said of the feeling.

A 5-foot-11 junior, Sledge added eight steals and six assists. Brazil, a 6-foot senior, had three assists and one steal. Neither played a large role in last year’s win. Sledge had only eight points, and Brazil sat out that 81-64 victory because of PIAA transfer rules.

“It felt more important to me this year because I had more of an impact on the team,” Brazil said. “Last year, I had an impact, but I wasn’t really able to show what I could do since the transfer rule forced me to sit out the entire playoffs – WPIAL and states.”

District 5 champion Berlin Brothersvalley (27-2) had three scorers in double figures. Craig Jarvis had 18 points, Mckelvey Foor had 16 and Pace Prosser added 15. Those three combined for 49 of the team’s 52 points.

The teams traded baskets in the first five minutes, with ties at 4, 7 and 11. Berlin Brothersvalley trailed by only four points early in the second quarter, before Imani sparked its defense and ran away with a 19-0 run.

The Saints led 41-19 at halftime.

“I told you it was going to be tougher to play against this team than last year’s team,” Berlin Brothersvalley coach Tanner Prosser said. “Last year, we could pull the bigs out, spread them out and take advantage of some ball-screen stuff. This year, they just quickly recovered.”

Imani Christian’s lead surpassed 30 points late in the third quarter, enacting the mercy rule. The Saints shot 47% from the field overall, went 8 for 18 from 3-point range and scored 29 points off turnovers.

Statistically, this was a better win than last year in almost every category.

“I would say we’re better than last year,” Sledge said.

Brazil saw it differently.

“I say we’ve got more heart than last year,” he said. “Skill-wise, no, we’re not better than last year. … But since we don’t have the size, we had to have the heart.”

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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