Knoch girls lean on defense to earn victory over Belle Vernon in Class 4A 1st round

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Tuesday, February 20, 2024 | 9:46 PM


As the favorite with home-court advantage for its WPIAL Class 4A first-round game against No. 11 Belle Vernon, the Knoch girls basketball team had designs on sending the Leopards back on their long drive home with a not-so-excited feeling.

The Knights’ pressure defense in the full and half court forced 25 Belle Vernon turnovers, and junior forward Karlee Buterbaugh scored a game-high 16 points as Knoch advanced to the quarterfinals with a 45-28 victory Tuesday evening.

“A lot of people know that we play pretty good defense in half court, zone, or one on one,” senior guard Naturelle Ewing said. “We take pride in that. We were pretty excited to hold Belle Vernon to just nine points in the first half.”

Knoch improved to 13-9 and will visit No. 3 Elizabeth Forward on Friday in the quarterfinals at a site and time to be determined.

The Knights are guaranteed at least two more games, Friday’s matchup and either a semifinal contest or a game in the consolation bracket with a shot at the fifth- or sixth-place berth from WPIAL 4A to the PIAA playoffs.

“The girls were locked in tonight on getting that win and then turning their attention to the game on Friday,” Knoch coach Shane McGraw said. “It’s been the standard here to get playoff games at home and win them. We never take that for granted. It will be a big challenge against Elizabeth Forward, but I know the girls will be ready.”

Knoch, which has won seven of its past nine games, returned to game action for the first time since a nonsection victory over Laurel on Feb. 12.

“I knew we would come out and play defense, and we would be excited about playing at home,” McGraw said. “I knew there might be a little rust to shake off offensively as we didn’t have our starting five for a couple of games. Our defense allowed us to stay in the game early before the offense got going. It was good to see a couple of shots go in.”

Belle Vernon caps its season at 10-13.

“We knew that Knoch was going to be a very defensive-oriented team with the press and their pressure,” Leopards coach Kaitlyn Slagus said. “All season, we’ve been trying to limit our turnovers, and going against this type of defense, it is hard to replicate that in practice. They forced us into some tough decisions.”

Both teams struggled early as each committed three turnovers in the first three minutes.

Knoch led 7-5 at the end of the first quarter, but a 3-pointer from senior Kenzi Seliga early in the second gave the Leopards the lead.

That advantage would be short-lived as the Knights move back in front on a long-range field goal from Buterbaugh.

The first 3-pointer of her varsity career gave Knoch a 10-8 lead and sparked the team on a 13-1 run to close the half.

Belle Vernon turned the ball over 16 times in the first half, including 11 in the second quarter, as the Knights started to take control.

“I’ve shot at least one three every game, but I just never felt it,” Buterbaugh said. “This one just came off my hands so well. There was anticipation as it was bouncing on the rim before it fell.”

Buterbaugh, shut out in the first quarter, scored 10 of her 16 in the second as the Knights led 20-9 at the break.

“One thing for us is that if we’re down, we don’t let it get to us,” Buterbaugh said. “If one person does one thing, me or someone else, it gets things going. We were playing really good defense, and it all came together for a really nice quarter.”

Knoch forced a pair of turnovers and sprinted to six quick points to open the third for what turned out to be an 18-7 advantage in the quarter.

Back-to-back 3-pointers from sophomore guard Neah Ewing, and a layup from Naturelle Ewing extended the Knights’ lead to 38-16 heading to the fourth.

Both Ewings ended the game with nine points.

Belle Vernon didn’t fold its tent and carried the fourth quarter, 12-7.

The Leopards’ Caroline Lee, a 6-foot senior forward, scored eight of her team-best 12 points in the second half.

“This is a very hard-working group,” Slagus said. “It is a young team that is getting better, and they gave it their all every game. No matter what the score was, I told them to not even worry about the score and just go out and play like it is a tie game. And they did that right up to the final buzzer.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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