Imani Christian surges past Union to win 1st WPIAL title, reigniting public-private debate

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Thursday, March 2, 2023 | 6:35 PM


Playing against Imani Christian is always a tall task, but as 6-foot-11 sophomore Alier Maluk swung from a Petersen Events Center rim Thursday night, the gigantic challenge became clear.

Their championship opponent, in fact, called it unfair.

Maluk punctuated a decisive third-quarter run with a breakaway two-handed dunk as No. 1 Imani Christian defeated No. 2 Union, 64-41, in the WPIAL Class A boys basketball final. Union went scoreless for nearly 5 minutes in the third quarter and Imani capitalized with 16 consecutive points.

The run flipped a two-point Union advantage into a 43-29 lead for Imani.

“I yelled at them in the locker room that we needed to get our things together,” Imani coach Omar Foster said. “We were just playing a little tight and a little shaky. Our identity is defense, and we feel that if we play really good defense, we’ll go on (16-0) runs.”

That third-quarter run wasn’t the only reason Union lost, said Scotties coach Mark Stanley, insisting that it’s “not fair” to ask his public school team to compete with Imani, particularly after the Saints added several transfers.

“I don’t know if it was the third quarter or back in September when they got more guys in,” Stanley said. “Bring in some more. I can’t stand it.”

The title was the first for Imani Christian (18-6), which was the top-ranked team in WPIAL Class A all season. The school is the second-smallest in WPIAL boys basketball, but the team has two starters taller than 6-9.

“What can you do?” Stanley said. “They’re not cheating. It’s just not fair. It’s not right.”

Dame Givner led Imani with 17 points, teammates Virgil Hall and R.J. Sledge had 11 points apiece, and Markus Williams added 10. Maluk, who’s a major-college recruit, had 10 rebounds, five points and five blocks.

Matt Stanley scored 19 points for Union (22-3), and brother Lucas Stanley had 15.

Imani lost to Union in the WPIAL semifinals a year ago, but this time celebrated a championship.

“This is what we deserve,” said Hall, a 6-9 junior. “We’ve been working so hard day in and day out for a very long time. This is only a stepping stone to our ultimate goal — to be state champions.”

Union was trying to win its third WPIAL championship in the past 10 months. The Scotties celebrated a WPIAL football title in the fall and a baseball title last spring, and their triple crown hopes were very much alive when junior Braylon Thomas made a third-quarter jumper to lead 29-27 with 5:20 left.

But Imani Christian’s defense kept Union from scoring again until there were 28 seconds left in quarter. The Saints entered the fourth leading 45-31.

“We prepared all year for them,” Foster said. “We believed that they were going to be the two (seed) and we were going to be the one. That’s what we felt like. It’s always good motivation when you have somewhat of a rivalry.”

This was the second WPIAL title in a row for Sledge, both against Union. The sophomore played for Bishop Canevin last winter when the Crusaders won the Class A title. The WPIAL ruled Sledge ineligible and said his transfer to Imani was athletically motivated, but the PIAA overturned that WPIAL decision in November.

Givner transferred from Obama Academy.

“It’s frustrating,” Stanley said. “Every year. … What changed (in the third quarter)? I’ll tell you what changed. They went and got two or three more guys. Defensively they’re good, but how can’t they be?”

Stanley said Imani was “talking smack” during the game, adding that the Saints should “win with class.”

After hearing of Stanley’s comments, Foster said his response to Union’s coach would be: “Shame on you.”

“Have some class with losing and class with winning,” Foster said. “We haven’t said anything negative about any of his kids or him, ever. Have some class.”

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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