South Fayette fends off Oakland Catholic again to reach PIAA championship game

Tuesday, March 21, 2023 | 10:45 PM

When South Fayette and Oakland Catholic battled for the WPIAL girls basketball Class 5A crown, the Lions left little doubt about who was champion with a 15-point victory.

Late in the rematch Tuesday for a berth in the PIAA 5A finals, there was plenty of doubt as to who would finish the journey on the Road to Hershey.

With the score tied midway through the fourth quarter, South Fayette scored nine of the game’s final 14 points to win and advance to the state title game, 58-54.

“This is a dream,” South Fayette coach Bryan Bennett said. “I thought we had a chance this year. I knew we had a talented team, but there are a lot of talented teams. To take these kids to the state title game and create a memory with them is a dream come true.”

While South Fayette was dreaming, Oakland Catholic had to think it was caught in a nightmare when the Lions scored the first eight points of the game.

Lions senior Maddie Webber was deadly early on, scoring 10 of her 24 points in the opening quarter.

“We knew they wanted it as much as we did, so we just had to push hard,” Webber said. “Obviously we already beat them, so they had a chip on the shoulder, but we had to have one too because we know how bad we wanted it. We were fighting hard at the beginning because we wanted to get a good start unlike we did at The Pete.”

Trailing 13-5, the Eagles finished the opening quarter strong to trail 19-15 after one.

“I thought we kind of self-destructed. Some of it had to do with what they did,” Bennett said of his team’s struggles after the hot start offensively. “If you look at a lot of our transitions, turnovers were just unforced. They did a really good job getting back in transition. A lot of credit to them and some credit to us for letting them back in the game.”

South Fayette again started strong in the second quarter and built its lead to eight points, 25-17.

Oakland Catholic fought back, though, and went to the locker room trailing 33-31.

Points seemed hard to come by for both teams in the second half. The Lions’ lead never was more than five points as South Fayette went to the fourth quarter still leading by two points.

“I think it was a little bit of nerves as you get closer and closer to the final horn, but some good defense as well,” Oakland Catholic coach Eddie Benton Jr. said. “At this point, both teams know each other’s stuff. They are running some stuff, we know it, we’re calling stuff out, and they know it. Now it comes down to just making plays.”

After coming close several times, the Eagles finally tied the game, 49-49, on a jumped by senior Rachel Haver.

Senior Ava Leroux put South Fayette back on top to stay with a pair of free throws with three minutes remaining.

A 3-pointer by Webber with 1:54 left seemed to be the dagger that Oakland Catholic could not come back from.

Free throws by junior Lainey Yater and Leroux offset a couple of baskets down low by Eagles senior Jill Gallo as the Lions held on for the victory.

“It’s crazy. I’m so excited,” Webber said. “This season has felt so long, but then again, there’s one more game left and it’s so short.”

Benton finishes his first season reestablishing Oakland Catholic (25-5) as a district power with a runner-up finish in the WPIAL playoffs and a final four appearance in the PIAA tournament.

“(Tuesday), we came up a little bit short,” Benton said. “I’m very, very proud of our effort and I’m very, very proud of our demeanor and how hard we played. You can live with that.”

Haver led the Eagles with 16 points while Gallo scored 13.

Leroux joined Webber in double-digit scoring for the Lions with 12 points.

South Fayette (28-2) has now won 22 games in a row and will attempt to win its first state championship when it travels to Hershey to play District 12 champion Archbishop Wood at 6 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ll enjoy tonight and I’ll be watching a lot of film over the next two days,” Bennett said. “We’re excited to be there and we’ll see what (Archbishop Wood) is like and prep for them and hopefully the chips fall in our favor.”

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