South Fayette beats Armstrong to complete 3-peat in WPIAL Class 5A

Saturday, March 2, 2024 | 6:45 PM

Experience matters for the South Fayette girls basketball team.

The sixth-seeded Lions weren’t expected to return to the Petersen Events Center for the WPIAL Class 5A girls basketball title game this season. But once South Fayette got there, what the Lions had witnessed in previous years helped them win their third straight title.

South Fayette took advantage of Armstrong’s nerves, playing in the title game for the first time since the school formed in 2015, forcing the River Hawks into bad passes and capitalizing on the fast break during the first half of a 70-63 win Saturday night.

The Lions shot 6 of 10 from the 3-point line in the first half. South Fayette senior guard Erica Hall, who finished with 17 points, connected on two 3-pointers in the second quarter to push the Lions’ lead to 28-20 with 2 minutes, 34 seconds left in the first half.

“I would say the first two years we were here, we had issues with the 3-point line, with the high school and the college line,” Hall said. “I think watching the game before us, we saw people taking deep 3s. So in the locker room, we told each other to see where our feet are on the floor before we shoot it. We are a good 3-point shooting team when we are focused.”

Hall was one of two seniors in the starting lineup for South Fayette (18-8). Lainey Yater finished with nine points and made a layup off a steal with 1:30 left in the first half to put the Lions ahead for good, 12-10.

Armstrong was only 1 of 7 from the 3-point line in the first half. Sophia DiGregorio made the River Hawks’ lone 3-pointer right before halftime.

Lions coach Bryan Bennett was impressed with how this group responded to being back in the championship game.

“I knew it was going to take time to get to where we were because of our youth,” Bennett said. “I knew we had talent. It was learning how to play hard for 32 minutes. Learning how to do little details. Once we learned that, it clicked.”

Armstrong (21-5) had its biggest lead when Sarai Weaver scored on a layup to make it 8-5 midway through the first quarter. The River Hawks saw the game slip away in the first half due to trouble with turnovers.

Armstrong gave the ball away seven times in the first half and South Fayette (18-8) cashed in with 11 fast-break points.

“It was just a little bit of nerves,” River Hawks coach Jim Callipare said. “This is (South Fayette’s) third time here in a row. Maybe they were a little more game ready being here before and this is our first trip. Maybe that played into a little bit. … They gave all they had.”

The Lions stretched that lead out to 35-25 by halftime and never trailed following Yater’s basket.

Juliette Leroux led the Lions with 18 points, while Emma Paul scored a game-high 36 points for Armstrong. Paul led a ferocious charge for the River Hawks in the second half. Armstrong cut the Lions’ lead down to three points several times in the fourth quarter.

That was thanks to hot-shooting from Paul, who made a 3-pointer with 4:22 remaining to cut the lead to 53-50. Leroux responded with a trey 10 seconds later to stretch the lead back to six for the Lions (18-8).

“Everyone wants to think they have a chance,” said Paul, who made all six of her 3-pointers after halftime. “We were one possession there at one point. We were in it. I was having fun and trying to get through it.”

Bennett said South Fayette had its hands full chasing down Paul, who made 6 of her 14 3-point attempts.

“What we saw tonight was what we saw on film,” Bennett said. “Their forwards are big strong kids and we were having a hard time fighting off the screens. It was faster than expected.”

Armstrong never figured out how to wrestle the lead away, allowing South Fayette to win an improbable third straight title.

Bennett said every run has felt special.

“I can’t rank them,” Bennett said. “They are all special groups of kids. … I’m as excited as I was for the first one.”

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