Led by scoring sensation Vinnie Cugini, Aquinas Academy boys seek playoff success

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Sunday, February 7, 2021 | 11:09 AM


Aquinas Academy star guard Vinnie Cugini knows the Crusaders will make the WPIAL Class A playoffs this season for the first time in program history. 

But the WPIAL’s leading scorer has greater ambition than a mere appearance in the league’s first “open” tournament since 1984.

“I’m really excited,” the sophomore said. “I’m hoping we can get a couple wins and do what we can do. Last year not making it kind of sucked.”

Thanks to Cugini’s record-breaking scoring exploits, the Crusaders are trending in the right direction. They won three section games last season after losing their first 66 section games as a WPIAL program.

Aquinas, a tiny private Catholic school in Hampton with 43 boys in grades 9-11, was 6-4 overall (1-4 in Section 3-1A) heading into its Feb. 9 game against Propel Andrew Street.

Last season, Aquinas finished 6-16 in its return to the WPIAL after an unsuccessful six-year stay from 2009-15.

“We’re trying to become a winning program that’s starting to win basketball games,” freshman guard John Bence said, “and I think that’s what we’re doing this year.”

Cugini is drawing league-wide attention during a season full of covid restrictions. Last month, he became the fastest player in WPIAL history to reach 1,000 career points. He achieved the milestone in the Crusaders’ 84-76 loss to Leechburg on Jan. 29 in his 29th game at Aquinas. He broke the mark of former Valley great Tom Pipkins, who needed 42 games to reach the milestone.

“It was nice for sure,” said Cugini, who was presented with a dated game ball in front of a handful of home fans. “It was like a dream come true.”

Third-year coach George Yokitis, who guided Vincentian to WPIAL titles in 2011 and ‘13, employs a fast-paced offense that enhances Cugini’s prolific scoring abilities.

Cugini, who lives in the Morningside section of Pittsburgh, is averaging 39.1 points per game after averaging a WPIAL-best 34.2 as a freshman.

He is joined in the backcourt by Bence, who scored a season-high 21 points in an 86-74 win at Avella on Jan. 23.

“He’s a beast,” Cugini said of Bence. “He’s a great passer, a great shooter. He’s very, very talented for a freshman.”

Other starters are Alex Hyrcza, the only senior on the roster, and juniors Theo Austin and Michael Duer, a transfer from now-closed Quigley.

“They have come so far in a couple of years,” Yokitis said. “They are playing better all the time. Across the board, we are improving and it’s a tribute to them. They work very hard.”

Cugini works more than most. He plays basketball year-round — unlike the many multisport athletes on the team — and spent the offseason devoted to his leaping ability, ball-handling and outside shooting.

At 6-foot-1, he now can dunk.

But Cugini, who also is among the team leaders in rebounds and steals, gets most of his points driving to the basket and creating shots. The former grade school standout at St. Raphael’s scored a season-best 55 against Nazareth Prep, 52 against St. Joseph and 46 against Portersville Christian this season.

“He is exceedingly quick,” Yokitis said. “There is something unusual about how quick he is. It’s very difficult to stay in front of him. He has an exceptional number of moves and shots. He’s good with either hand. He’s quick off his feet. He can be very aggressive offensively, and he can really jump. He’s deadly.”

Yokitis said Cugini’s high volume of shots is not an issue with his teammates. The Crusaders play at a blistering pace and, according to Yokitis, attempt roughly 80-85 shots a game.

“The reality is everyone has a green light on my team, and they shoot,” Yokitis said. “Vinnie is obviously a kid that can create his shot.

“His teammates love him. They cheer for him like crazy, and they have perfect team chemistry. At his level and based on the amount of time he puts in, I think they all understand their relative abilities.”

Bence, who lives in Fox Chapel, echoed his coach. He bristled at any suggestion Cugini takes too many shots or dominates the ball.

“We want to win, and the best chance of us winning is giving the ball to Vinnie and letting him score,” Bence said.

“A lot of people question Vinnie and say, ‘Oh, he shoots too much.’ But, come on. He’s getting double-teamed every game and he’s still scoring 30 points a game. Everyone (on the team) shoots a lot, and nobody is annoyed with how many shots they get.”

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