South Allegheny boys hold off upset-minded Avonworth

Friday, February 14, 2020 | 11:39 PM

South Allegheny’s Bryce Epps isn’t one to let his critics phase him.

So when he went to the free-throw line with the game tied at 46-46 with 19.1 seconds on the clock and the Avonworth student section chanting, “He can’t shoot,” Epps wasn’t going to be denied.

The standout freshman connected on both of his foul shots to put No. 3 South Allegheny ahead late before its defense held strong in a 48-46 triumph over the No. 14 Antelopes in a WPIAL Class 3A first-round matchup Friday night at Mt. Lebanon High School.

“I hear them rooting against us, but I also hear our student section rooting for us. I don’t pay attention to that stuff, though. I gotta play basketball,” said Epps, who scored all seven of his points in the fourth quarter.

Epps hit his first basket three minutes into the final frame, draining a three that put SA ahead, 43-40. From then on, the nerves were gone and Epps focused on simply converting and helping his team earn a win.

“I knew I couldn’t go out like that (in) my first playoff game, and I knew I had to get something going,” Epps said. “After I made that three, it gave me confidence toward the end. My teammates kept picking me up, and my coaches told me to keep shooting the ball.”

SA coach Tony DiCenzo said there were plenty of times during the regular season when Epps was held scoreless through a half before exploding to finish with 18 or 20 points by the end of the game.

“He has done that for us all year,” DiCenzo said. “For a freshman to step up in that spot, it was pretty significant for us.”

After Epps’ foul shots and a timeout by SA (22-1), Avonworth (11-12) had an opportunity to win the game in the final seconds.

A trey by Deon Thomas was off the mark, though, and SA’s Ethan Kirkwood picked up the rebound, allowing the Gladiators to punch their ticket into the Class 3A quarterfinals.

“We had a play set, and we got a little mixed up because we had the wrong guy on the wrong guy,” Avonworth head coach Mike Donovan said. “We thought (Kirkwood) was going to be on somebody else, and we just had a bit of a mix-up after that.”

While Bryce Epps was held in check through the first three quarters, his older brother, Antonio Epps, made his presence felt early.

The elder Epps brother led SA to an 18-8 lead after one quarter, scoring 13 of his team-high 19 points in the frame.

He scored 16 in the first half.

“Antonio started the game off really hot,” DiCenzo said. “He really led the way for us.”

SA’s lead grew to 12 a minute into the second quarter, but it wasn’t safe, as Avonworth rallied back.

Jordan Rapp and Jordan Kolenda each connected on layups, kickstarting a 14-2 run that tied the game at 25-25 heading into halftime.

Rapp had all six of his points during the spurt, while Kolenda scored four of his game-high 22 points.

“They started believing this week in preparation,” Mike Donovan said. “After the pairings, I told them we have to do the right things and play sound defense and smart on offense. We got back to doing that in the second quarter.”

Antonio Epps hit a trey 11 seconds into the third quarter to put SA ahead by three before Kolenda netted six straight points to give Avonworth a 31-28 edge.

After the teams exchanged buckets, Dillon Hynes hit a clutch trey from the corner, tying the game at 33-33 with 4:59 left in the third.

Kolenda scored three of the Antelopes’ final five points, while Omar Faulkner went to work inside for the Gladiators.

The 6-foot-5 forward scored seven of his 15 points in the last 2:17 of the third, helping give SA a 40-38 lead after 24 minutes.

Faulkner added 14 rebounds for the double-double.

“He has been the X-factor for us all year long,” DiCenzo said. “We don’t have to run a play for him all the time for him to score. He gets a lot of points on offensive rebounds and putbacks.

“In that third quarter, he was able to keep us in the game, for sure.”

South Allegheny will now turn its attention to No. 6 Beaver Falls, as the two teams will match up Thursday at a site and time to be determined.

Click to watch an archived broadcast on Trib HSSN.

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