South Allegheny surges past Belle Vernon in 2nd half of Class 4A 1st-round clash

Friday, February 16, 2024 | 10:53 PM

With the teams neck and neck entering halftime, No. 10 Belle Vernon and No. 7 South Allegheny both went to the locker room with the belief that they could move on to the second round of the Class 4A WPIAL playoffs to take on No. 2 Hampton.

It was the Gladiators (17-6) who outscored the Leopards (12-9) in the second half en route to a 71-62 victory on their home court Friday night.

“Most of the time when I’m talking about us winning, it’s our defense. Tonight, our offense won us the game,” South Allegheny coach Tony DiCenzo said. “There was a stretch there in the fourth quarter where we executed for four or five possessions and scored, and I think that broke the game open. It was a four- or six-point game for the most part, and we were able to get it to eight or 10.”

“We missed some shots that I thought we should’ve made, missed some layups, and they came down and scored,” Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino said. “I think Cam Epps hit a long 3 late in the game, those things happen. We just couldn’t answer.”

Epps finished with 19 points after going into halftime with three, while Michael Michalski scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half.

For Belle Vernon, Zion Moore poured in 22 points with Michalski hounding him defensively. Alonzo Wade added 16 points and Tommy Davis scored 15 more.

As expected, the contest was close from the beginning. Davis and Moore got started right away for the Leopards, pushing them out to a 6-4 lead as Beatty had two layups for the Gladiators.

Points were hard to come by in the first quarter, and it took South Allegheny more than three minutes to get its first lead of the game through Drew Cook. The Elizabeth Forward transfer knocked down a 3-pointer through contact and added a free throw to make the score 8-6 in favor of the Gladiators.

Wade broke a 10-10 tie with 2:34 left in the first quarter after a tough layup, but Michalski worked himself into the game for the rest of the quarter.

Michalski was the lone scorer for the remaining two-plus minutes, scoring six points to give the Gladiators a 16-12 lead after one.

The teams traded points for most of the second quarter, and things got chippy with 4:22 to play in the first half.

After Davis made converted on a three-point play to cut Belle Vernon’s deficit to 21-19, Wade was called for a travel and shoved Epps after the Gladiators guard reached for the ball still in the hands of the Leopards forward. The referees deemed it to be worthy of a technical foul, and Josh Jackowski knocked down both free throws.

Epps sank a 3 to make the score 28-20 with less than two minutes before halftime, but Belle Vernon quickly responded.

Moore and Davis combined for the last six points of the second quarter to make it 28-26 in favor of South Allegheny at the break.

Moore has 12 points and Davis 11 at halftime, accounting for 23 of 26 for the Leopards. DiCenzo said he focused on limiting Davis the rest of the way by sending out a big lineup to start the third quarter, and Davis was held to four more points.

“We had to start with a big lineup out of halftime, which was untraditional, but we played well out of it,” DiCenzo said. “(Moore) is very difficult. He’s a challenge every night, and he’s always gonna get into the 20s and push towards the 30s.

“The adjustment we had to make was on Davis. He exploited us in the first half with 11 points. We talked about it at halftime, and I think we did a better job of rotating to him when we had to help on the ball screen and he rolled to the basket.”

With those adjustments, the Gladiators hit the ground running in the third quarter.

Michalski and Wade countered each other to start the second half before another trifecta from Cook. After Epps was able to poke the ball free from Moore and get an easy layup, Michalski was able to do the exact same on the next possession with a spinning finish that ignited the home crowd. Suddenly, South Allegheny led 37-28 with 4:36 left in the third quarter, and Salvino wanted a timeout.

“When you’re not scoring, that takes a lot out of you defensively as well,” Salvino said. “I think we had lapses on defense because we weren’t scoring.”

The Leopards went on an 8-3 run after the pause, but Michalski ended the quarter with the last four points to give his Gladiators a 44-36 advantage entering the final eight minutes of play.

Moore and Davis were on a mission to keep their Leopards in striking distance at the beginning of the fourth, but the Gladiators executed their offense to perfection down the stretch.

“We got Jeston and others back into the game and in their normal spots, and we ran about four or five set plays and we scored on all of them,” DiCenzo said. “We may have traded baskets there, but we never let them get too close.”

With the score at 48-43, Epps hit a deep 3-pointer to extend his squad’s lead. Wade replied with a rare triple of his own, but SA again found points through Michalski. After Epps connected on another shot from downtown with 4:05 remaining, the Leopards called a timeout trailing 56-46.

Belle Vernon scored the next four points before Michalski added four of his own. Still, Wade hit another 3 with 2:15 to play, and his squad was trailing 60-55.

The Gladiators effectively put the game away by scoring the next seven points as Beatty made a layup and then pulled out a nifty Eurostep through contact. With his free throw and two more from Epps, the Gladiators held a 67-55 advantage with under a minute to play.

Moore scored five more points for the Leopards, but Beatty, Cook and Epps all made free throws to cap the scoring at 71-62 in favor of South Allegheny.

The Gladiators will move on to play No. 2 Hampton on Wednesday at a site to be determined.

“You don’t have much time to rest and celebrate,” DiCenzo said. “(Hampton) is really good. They’re the No. 2 seed for a reason. They have a really good player in (Peter) Kramer, and they play a different style from most high school teams. They’re slow-paced and methodical with the ball, and they try to get you with post entries. It’s going to be a challenge, and that big lineup that we started with in the second half might have to be used.”

For Belle Vernon, Salvino is looking forward to another opportunity with the same squad next year. There were no seniors this season for the Leopards.

“It was a roller-coaster ride of a season,” he said. “We were up sometimes and down sometimes. We just couldn’t get into that rhythm that we wanted, so it’s a little bit disappointing, but we’re all young. I didn’t have any seniors, so that’s a good thing.”

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