Short-handed Uniontown gets defensive in WPIAL quarterfinal win over North Catholic

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Thursday, February 22, 2024 | 12:40 AM


Uniontown was missing its big man in the middle, but against a small, speedy opponent, was that a blessing in disguise?

Maybe so, said coach Rob Kezmarsky, but he sure hopes center K’Adrian McLee gets back in the lineup soon. Playing without the Ivy League football recruit, No. 4 seed Uniontown relied on an all-guard lineup to defeat No. 5 North Catholic, 59-37, Wednesday night in a WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinal at Norwin.

“I think it basically helped us (on the offensive end) against North Catholic with the way they pressure and run and jump,” Kezmarsky said. “But defensively, there’s no coach that can stop a 6-foot-6 kid who blocks every shot.”

Uniontown juniors Notorious Grooms and Calvin Winfrey each scored 16 points, often converting rebounds or turnovers into transition layups thanks to a disruptive Red Raiders defense. North Catholic’s Max Hurray scored a game-high 23 points, but the Trojans shot only 27% from the field and went 6 for 26 from 3-point range.

The 37 points were by far North Catholic’s fewest of the season. The previous low was 54.

“Our kids deserve so much credit,” Kezmarsky said. “When your 6-6 kid doesn’t play and your other kids step up like that, you can’t be more pleased.”

North Catholic was held to quarter scores of 10, 7, 8 and 12 points, letting Uniontown build a 10-point lead by halftime. North Catholic entered averaging more than 70 points per game.

“Our coach told us to switch everything since we were all guards,” Winfrey said. “They run a good set offense and they’re shooters, so it was good to switch everything rather than try to fight though and leave someone open.”

Uniontown (21-3) advances to face No. 1 Lincoln Park in the semifinals Saturday at a site and time to be determined. For that game, Kezmarsky was hopeful to have McLee back.

He said McLee, a senior headed to Cornell, came to practice this week with a swollen leg and is considered day to day.

“Everybody is probably like, ‘Suck it up and play,’ but it’s not like that for a kid with his future,” Kezmarsky said. “So coming in, the kids knew (he was out).”

Uniontown and North Catholic met twice in the postseason a year ago. They each won once, with North Catholic winning the WPIAL playoffs and Uniontown winning in the state tournament.

So Wednesday’s win was a measure of redemption for Uniontown, since it lost to North Catholic in the WPIAL quarterfinals a year ago. Wednesday’s matchup came in the same playoff round and in the same gym, but the result was different for a Uniontown team that had four starters back.

Kezmarsky said the game plan was also the same as a year ago, but this time they won by 22 instead of losing by 15.

“We didn’t want to chase their good players,” said Kezmarsky, adding that teams who chase after North Catholic’s weaving offense get into foul trouble.

“This is the first time since I’ve been coaching — maybe the first or second — that we haven’t pressed,” he said. “We played half-court man-to-man. We didn’t chase them. We played our game and we rebounded the basketball well.”

North Catholic jumped to an 8-2 lead in the opening minutes but neither offense started all too quickly. They needed four minutes to reach those 10 combined points.

Uniontown’s transition offense got going with three consecutive layups in the middle of the quarter by Jamire Braxton, Grooms and Winfrey. The Red Raiders finished the first on a 13-2 run to take a five-point lead.

North Catholic’s offensive woes worsened in the second quarter with just three made baskets, including two by Hurray.

Uniontown led 27-17 at half after a block at one end led to a transition layup by Eric Townsend at the other. The Red Raiders’ lead grew to 13 points before the end of the third quarter and reached 20 on two free throws by Grooms with three minutes left in the fourth.

“I was ready to play,” Grooms said. “I’ve been locked in for the last year. I’ve watched a lot of film from last year until now — every game they played, I watched.”

Hurray tried to keep North Catholic afloat. The senior made 7 of 19 shots and went 6 for 8 from the foul line, but he couldn’t keep pace with an opponent that had five players score at least eight points.

North Catholic’s season isn’t over. The Trojans enter the WPIAL consolation bracket with a chance to claim one of seven entries into the state playoffs. The first round of Class 4A consolation games is Friday.

Uniontown is already guaranteed a spot in the state playoffs, but that’s a thought for another day. Kezmarsky’s team has a few days to prepare for Lincoln Park, the defending WPIAL and PIAA champion.

The Red Raiders lost to Lincoln Park in the state semifinals a year ago.

“They’re pretty tough,” Grooms said, “but everyone is beatable.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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