A strong defense spearheaded Burrell's success this season, helping the Bucs overcome an inconsistent offense.
But although the Bucs won a share of a section title following that formula, it didn't work as well in their postseason debut.
No. 12 Riverside beat Burrell at its own game, locking down the No. 5 Bucs throughout and holding off a late comeback for a 32-27 victory in a WPIAL Class 3A first-round matchup Friday night at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic.
“We've been hanging our hat defensively this year, and once again they buckled down and did what they were supposed to do defensively,” Burrell coach Shawn Bennis said. “They executed the game extremely well.
“Unfortunately, we weren't able to put the ball in the hoop.”
That proved to be an understatement, as Burrell (10-13) — which earned the No. 5 seed after splitting the Section 3-3A title with Shady Side Academy and East Allegheny — scored a season low in points.
Riverside (13-9) held Burrell scoreless for more than eight minutes of the second half, using the ensuing 9-0 run to take a 24-15 lead and control of the game. And while Burrell made a late charge, cutting its deficit to one in the final quarter, it proved too little, too late.
“Every possession was a grind, and fortunately we made enough plays to win,” Riverside coach John Rorick said. “If you like defense, tonight was a good game to watch. Pretty much every shot that was taken was contested. There wasn't too many stand by yourself. There was a body near somebody nearly every single time.”
Riverside advanced to play No. 4 Aliquippa, a section rival, in the quarterfinals Thursday at a time and site to be determined.
“I told the guys, at this point in time, you've just got to win,” Rorick said. “If we would have won 3-2 or 8-6, at this point in time, you just want to win the game.”
For a time, it looked as though Rorick might get those types of numbers.
Burrell, which held opponents to 48.9 points per game during the regular season, kept Riverside without a basket for more than eight minutes in the first half. However, the Bucs' own offensive struggles kept them from taking advantage. Riverside closed the half on an 11-4 run to take a 15-13 lead into the break.
Only two players cracked the scoresheet for Burrell in the first half: Donovan Russell with seven points and Zach Gimbel with six on a pair of 3-pointers.
“We did everything we wanted to do: stopped them in transition, we outrebounded them, we didn't want (Riverside guard Ty Thellman) getting in the paint and having a lot of assists, which I don't think he did,” Bennis said. “But it's tough.”
Russell made a layup to tie the score 90 seconds into the third quarter, but the Bucs' next points didn't come until the fourth quarter, on a Jake Okopal 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 13 seconds remaining.
That 3, however, gave Burrell life: It kick-started a 12-4 run that cut Riverside's lead to 28-27 with 2:29 remaining. Logan Bitar and Russell converted baskets, Okopal hit another 3 and Gimbel scored on an offensive putback in transition.
But Riverside buckled down one more time. An Okopal 3 that would have given Burrell the lead came up short.
Riverside made 4 of 6 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
“Five seniors were on the floor a lot, and you would expect seniors to be able to handle that,” Rorick said. “They did what they had to do. I'm proud of them.”
Thellman led Riverside with nine points. Russell scored 11 for Burrell.
“I'm proud of them,” Bennis said. “We had a great season. We took another step as a program, getting the (section) championship. That goes to their hard work.”