Rochester handles Aquinas Academy to make 3rd straight WPIAL finals

Thursday, March 11, 2021 | 8:06 PM

Going into the WPIAL girls basketball playoffs, Rochester went 18 days without a game due to covid-19 precautions and their bye as the No. 1 seed in the Class A bracket.

There has been no rust. Two games later, the Rams have two 75-point outputs and have outscored their first two playoff opponents, 150-56.

Those results are thanks, in large part, to what coach CJ Iannini’s team worked on heavily during the practice period it had: defense.

The Rams were tenacious and relentless on the defensive end for the second straight game, forcing a ton of Aquinas Academy turnovers and turning them into transition buckets on the other end, as the two-time defending Class A champs advanced to their third straight final with a 75-34 win over the fourth-seeded Crusaders (14-6) Thursday night.

“We were hitting on all cylinders and the transition game was working for us,” Iannini said. “That’s one of the things we really focused on during that break was our defense. We fine-tuned a lot of what we do — taking better angles, jumping ball lanes and more. We’re going to continue to turn up the intensity and score in transition. That’s the way we love to play.”

Iannini said the Rams (14-3) went in wanting to get Alexis Robison’s confidence up a bit and open things up for her, which they did, to the tune a game-high 23 points, 21 of which came in the first three quarters.

“We were able to create some space for her and were really happy with her performance,” Iannini said.

Mekenzie Robison added 18 while junior standout guard Corynne Hauser poured in 21 of her own. Hauser and the Robisons figure to be huge pieces of a potential third straight gold medal for the Rams.

“I’m grateful to have those three on my roster. It’s exciting to see them grow as individuals and players and get back to a third WPIAL final,” Iannini said. “We want to be humble but hungry. The humble side is taking every opponent like they’re a national champion or WPIAL champion and the hungry side is how relentless we are.”

Aquinas Academy, the second-smallest school in WPIAL girls hoops, will return everything next season, including leading scorer Elizabeth Russell, who scored a team-high 15 points in the loss. Coach Chris Lebakken said he felt his team didn’t settle in during the first half, in part due to nerves and in part due to the defensive pressure Rochester put on them.

“It’s tough to play a team that is that talented and that aggressive on defense and the fast break,” Lebakken said. “It looked like it took us two quarters to calm down. Taking bad shots, not boxing out, things like that contributed too. It seemed like, at times, we weren’t even across half court and we were already trying to get rid of the ball.”

Lebakken said he’s excited his players got a crack at the Rams so they could “see what it takes to win at this level.” The team has now accomplished three firsts in the last two seasons: a state playoff appearance a year ago, a section title this year and the Crusaders’ first semifinal appearance.

As for the Rams, it’s off to Peters Township’s AHN Arena for a third straight championship game appearance and date with No. 2 West Greene, which defeated No. 3 Eden Christian.

In 2019, Rochester beat the Pioneers, 62-56. Last year, the Rams won by a final of 59-43. Tip is slated for 5 p.m. Monday with the winner not only crowned champion but being the sole WPIAL representative in the state Class A playoffs.

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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