Leechburg boys overwhelm River Valley in Apollo-Ridge tournament

Tuesday, December 28, 2021 | 7:42 PM

River Valley might be the newest school in Western Pennsylvania, but its problem Wednesday was as old as basketball itself.

The Panthers (3-5) committed 27 turnovers and Leechburg (6-0), the No. 5 team in this week’s TribHSSN Class A rankings, took advantage with a strong showing, resulting in a 69-31 victory over the Blairsville-Saltsburg merger in the opening round of the Apollo Trust Tournament at Apollo-Ridge.

Senior Eli Rich had a monster game for the Blue Devils with 14 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and six steals. Braylan Lovelace led Leechburg with 20 points and Marcus Cleveland tallied 15.

The Blue Devils led just by a 13-10 margin at the end of the first period. But River Valley committed turnovers on each of its first three possessions of the second period and Leechburg converted those into baskets and rolled from there.

“We pride ourselves in being active, defensively, and creating these easy buckets,” said Blue Devils coach Damian Davies. “That’s not going to happen all four quarters, but we’re strong, athletic guys and we like to get out there and get people in situations where we can get a lot of turnovers.”

A 12-2 run by the Blue Devils was capped by Lovelace’s three-point play. Lovelace scored soon after on a third-chance basket and in the following sequence grabbed the ball from a Panthers player near the hoop and went coast-to-coast, finishing with a slam to put Leechburg in front, 29-16, with 1 minute, 17 seconds left in the half.

“Turnovers have been our Achilles’ heel all year,” said River Valley coach Don Stitt. “I’ve got some young guys and some inexperienced guys and we all knew what Leechburg’s got. We knew we were going to come in for a battle. They’re just relentless. I told my kids we can hang with anybody. We’ve just got to put it together for four quarters. What Leechburg is, we definitely want to become. ”

“Everybody knows their role,” Rich said. “I get the board, throw it up, that’s how we score. I do my job; the other guys do their job. We all do our part as a team.”

It was more of the same in the third period as Leechburg outscored the Panthers from the District 6 Heritage Conference, 24-7, as both coaches turned to their reserves.

Said Davies: “Owen McDermott shot a couple of 3s, and Ashton (Redmond) came in and got us going there in the second half with some great boards. We go eight guys and we can play everybody. All eight go in. We have some guys who can go in different spots.”

One bright spot for River Valley was sophomore guard Dom Speal, who scored 17 of his team’s 31 points for a squad created from teams that were rivals for many years.

“Honestly, all the kids really knew each other,” Stitt said. “Baseball was a combined sport in the past, like golf and wrestling. All the kids just get along. That was in the past. Now it’s the present and the future.”

The Blue Devils will play in the championship game at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday against either Apollo-Ridge or Neighborhood Academy.

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