Shutdown defenses to meet when North Allegheny, Bethel Park tangle for girls 6A title

Friday, February 28, 2020 | 6:12 PM

When Bethel Park and North Allegheny take the floor at Petersen Events Center on Saturday for the Class 6A girls basketball championship, expect a defensive chess match to unfold.

The Black Hawks (36.9 points allowed per game) are the top-ranked defense in the classification and the Tigers are close behind them in second at 38.6 allowed per game.

Judging from each team’s path to The Pete, points could be at a premium when they face off for a WPIAL title at 7 p.m.

“You’d expect it to be that way, but at the same time you never know,” North Allegheny coach Spencer Stefko said. “Logic would dictate that, but I don’t know if logic dictates a lot of WPIAL finals. They sort of take on a life of their own.”

Bethel Park has held Fox Chapel and Mt. Lebanon to 29 points each in its first-round and semifinal wins. The Black Hawks didn’t get out of the 30s offensively in either game, but with the way they guard, they are comfortable playing a low-scoring game.

“Truthfully, we’ve had a lot of nights like (Tuesday) this season where we don’t play well offensively, but we rebound and play defense,” Bethel Park coach Jonna Burke said. “All season, we’ve been holding teams around 40. I know North Allegheny has a lot of weapons offensively, so there becomes the challenge.”

For the Tigers, it’s a fifth trip to the finals in a row, a streak that started when Stefko took over as the coach prior to the 2015-16 season.

“It’s special,” Stefko said. “I’m excited. You’re in the state tournament either way, but you see the hourglass draining with your seniors that you love to death, and it’s another chance to battle with kids that have taken me there five times now. There aren’t a lot of coaches that have kids that take you to a special game like this.”

One of those seniors is forward Kat Balouris, who had a strong game defensively in the semifinal win. The Tigers had their two-year title run snapped with a 43-40 loss in overtime to Peters Township last year. It was a heartbreaking result that fueled the team this season.

“I think we definitely wanted to get back to that game and redeem ourselves, but for our team, we like to take it game by game,” Balouris said. “It’s nice that we’ve got there, but now we have to treat it like a normal game, play hard and try to win.”

North Allegheny held Upper St. Clair without a field goal for 13-plus minutes in its 39-27 win in the semifinals.

Stefko credited his girls for the team’s success in holding opponents down. He said he hasn’t made a defensive assignment all year and that the girls work diligently and communicate well on the floor.

The challenge Saturday will be matching up with Bethel Park senior Maddie Dziezgowski and junior Olivia Westphal, who average 15 points per game each. Stefko added that he’s been impressed with senior Lauren Mullen.

“You have to look at them as a big three, because (Mullen) has been lights out for them lately,” Stefko said. “One thing we have to do is keep them off the boards. They hit the offensive glass really well. We have to play a complete game because you can’t sleep on any of their kids. The teams we’ve been watching recently have let Bethel Park kind of run roughshod. We have to plan and account for everybody, because they are too good not to.”

Lizzie Groetsch had 17 points in the win over Upper St. Clair to pace the Tigers. Paige Morningstar is also a scoring threat.

The last trip to the finals for Bethel Park was in 2017, where they lost, 50-39, to the Tigers. Burke is weary of the big-game experience her opponent has.

“North Allegheny is a whole other ball of wax,” Burke said. “They are veterans that have been there five years in a row. This is expected of them to be there, even if they are a No. 2 seed this year. We have to be better offensively, and I have faith that we can be, but I’ll also say that if we can play defense like we did (Tuesday) and win ugly, then we’ll win like that.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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