South Allegheny drops Aliquippa, advances to 1st WPIAL finals

Thursday, March 11, 2021 | 10:03 PM

For the first time in program history, the South Allegheny boys basketball team will play for a WPIAL championship.

The top-seeded Gladiators took the lead for good late in the third quarter before pulling away for a 62-50 victory over No. 4 Aliquippa in the WPIAL Class 3A semifinals Thursday night.

South Allegheny (17-4) advances to play No. 11 Ellwood City (13-4), a 60-51 winner over No. 2 Neshannock on Thursday, for the Class 3A title at 5 p.m. Monday at North Allegheny.

“Right now, I’m kind of at a loss for words, trying to gather the emotions and thoughts. I’m just beyond proud of our guys,” said South Allegheny coach Tony DiCenzo, who had a whole roster of players return this season from last year’s semifinal team. “There were a lot of expectations, and now we’re one step away from the ultimate goal. We still didn’t accomplish anything, though. We want that trophy, and we won’t be happy unless we get it.”

With the experienced heartbreak of last year’s semifinal loss at the hands of North Catholic, the Gladiators were determined not to let history repeat itself this time around.

The Quips (12-6) didn’t make things easy on the hosts, though, rallying from an eight-point third-quarter deficit to take a 32-30 lead less than midway through the frame.

After Omar Faulkner extended South Allegheny’s 26-20 halftime lead to eight within the first minute of the third, Aliquippa used a 12-2 run to get back on top. Sophomore guard Deandre Moye played a big role during the spurt, scoring five of his team-high 14 points.

South Allegheny didn’t go away, however.

Seconds after Donovan Walker hit a trey to give the Quips a two-point advantage, Bryce Epps converted on a layup to kickstart an 11-2 run in the final three and a half minutes. Faulkner hit 1 of 2 free throws during the run, while Antonio Epps and Ethan Kirkwood each contributed with buckets to put South Allegheny back in front, 41-34, heading into the fourth.

“We knew coming into this game that they were going to be a high-energy team and one of the best we would see all year,” Antonio Epps said. “We knew we had to come in, follow the game plan and match their intensity. If we did that, we knew we’d have a chance to win this game.”

In the fourth, South Allegheny wasted little time expanding on its seven-point edge as a quick 8-0 run made it 49-34, prompting a timeout by Aliquippa head coach Nick Lackovich with 7:08 on the clock.

Kirkwood and Dillion Hynes each nailed treys after an alley oop from Bryce Epps to Faulkner brought the South Allegheny crowd to its feet.

“We drew up that play for the lob to Faulkner, and we’ve tried that a handful of times in games, but were never able to connect on it,” DiCenzo said. “In probably the biggest moment of the year, it worked and really sparked us to lead that run we had.”

Aliquippa countered SA’s fast fourth-quarter start by scoring eight of the next nine points to cut its deficit to 50-42 with 3:26 to go.

That’s when Antonio Epps took over.

The senior guard scored nine of South Allegheny’s final 12 points in the last 3:12 of the game to help his squad seal the win.

“Coming off of last year’s loss, it made us realize we had to get back here and get over the hump,” said Antonio Epps, who led the way with 17 points. “We were able to accomplish that, and I couldn’t be more proud.”

South Allegheny’s victory didn’t come without a little bit of adversity.

Aliquippa began the game shooting lights out from beyond the arc, converting on four 3-pointers within the opening four minutes.

Their long-range surge allowed the Quips to gain some separation in the early going, taking a 14-5 lead before an SA timeout with 4:11 left in the frame.

The Gladiators responded after the pause in play as Antonio Epps hit back-to-back 3-pointers to kickstart an 11-0 run that gave South Allegheny a 16-14 edge after eight minutes. Bryce Epps followed up a steal with a layup and Hynes nailed a three to finish off the late run.

“In a big moment, we showed a lot of character and resolve,” DiCenzo said. “Credit to Aliquippa because they came out on fire in the first few minutes of the game. … We missed a couple of defensive assignments early on, which is unlike us, and they got open looks. To their credit, they made them.

“Once we relaxed, took a deep breath and got back to what we typically do, I thought we made them earn in the half court and made things difficult for them. It wasn’t the greatest performance, but we’re not looking for style points. We’re moving on and that’s what is important.”

South Allegheny narrowly outscored Aliquippa by a 10-6 margin in the second quarter with Hynes leading the way. He scored six of his 15 points in the frame and finished with five 3-pointers.

“He kept us in the game in the first half,” DiCenzo said. “Everyone pays attention to our big three, but we’re more than just that, and that was put on display tonight. Our role guys really step up in big moments for us.”

Bryce Epps joined his older brother and Hynes in double figures with 14 points for SA.

In addition to Moye, Aliquippa had a pair in double figures as Tyjeir Crocker and Walker each finished with 12 points.

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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