Neighborhood Academy tops Rochester, makes finals in program’s 4th year in WPIAL

Saturday, February 24, 2024 | 6:39 PM

Jordan Marks has spent plenty of time at the Petersen Events Center. Before becoming the head coach at Neighborhood Academy, Marks cut his teeth as a video coordinator under former Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.

So, Marks is pretty familiar with where he will be next Thursday night.

Behind 18 points from Yale recruit Courtney Wallace and 19 from talented freshman Kedron Gilmore, Marks’ Bulldogs took their biggest collective step to date, booking a spot in the WPIAL Class A finals with a 61-49 victory over No. 3 seed Rochester.

The second-seeded Bulldogs (18-5) will take on section mate and powerhouse Imani Christian for the third time this season Thursday evening at the Pete with tip slated for 5 p.m. It will be the first trip to the WPIAL finals for the young Neighborhood Academy squad, still finding its way through the WPIAL.

Imani dispatched Union, 101-67, in the other semifinal at Montour on Saturday.

Marks’ team will be making its first trip to the WPIAL finals in just its fourth year as a member of the WPIAL.

Saturday’s win was a landmark moment for the young coach and his rising program.

The Bulldogs’ berth in the title game wasn’t easy at first as they shot 3 for 16 in the opening eight minutes.

But Wallace had a message for his team during the early slow start.

“We told each other to keep shooting the same shots,” Wallace said. “Maybe not shoot as many deep 3s, but keep going to the hoop. When our defense started clicking, the offense came with it. We got a couple of fast breaks, couple layups, got a dunk, we turned it up after that.”

Wallace was his spectacular self, hitting two big 3-pointers, one to keep the offense in rhythm and another to add icing to the cake later in the game.

The Bulldogs defense held Rochester guard Xavier Rigby in check most of the afternoon, as they contested nearly every Rams shot and passing lane. Rigby labored to score 10 points and had a hand in his face the entire 32 minutes.

“One-hundred percent, that is what we pride ourselves on,” Marks said. “We switched defenses up a little bit here and there, but our man-to-man is what has gotten us here. I told them we would win a championship based off our defense and we would get there based off it and that is what we did.”

Rigby was a focal point for the Neighborhood defense.

“We knew he’s their guy, so we cut the court in half,” Marks said. “Shade him, trail him on every screen, if you can’t get through the screen, switch it. That’s our emphasis on all the high-post catches and back cuts, help the helper, be off the ball, know where he is at all times, and we put one of our bigger kids on him to negate all of his shots.”

Now it is the challenge the Bulldogs have faced twice already this season. Imani won both section meetings earlier this season by comfortable margins.

This time it will be in a venue Marks knows all too well.

“I’ve been there a lot of times,” Marks joked. “I know where all the locker rooms are. The kids all bought in, and executed everything I said, and we are riding our defense.”

Not too shabby for a program still in its infancy as a WPIAL member.

“It’s huge. Kids have been unbelievable. They’ve gotten better each year,” Marks said. “The first year they said, ‘I hope we can win 10 games and make the playoffs,’ and we did that and then it was, ‘Let’s get a little better,’ and we won 20 games, WPIAL quarterfinals, and then this year it was, ‘Maybe we can do something a little more special,’ and we are going to a WPIAL championship.”

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