South Fayette knocks off McKeesport to earn 3rd straight trip to WPIAL Class 5A finals

Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | 10:35 PM

The AHN Arena at Peters Township saw a defensive battle in the Class 5A girls semifinal between No. 6 South Fayette and No. 2 McKeesport. When the dust settled, the Lions earned their third straight trip to Pitt’s Petersen Events Center with a 49-41 win over the Tigers.

South Fayette will meet No. 5 Armstrong in the finals at 5 p.m. Saturday. The River Hawks upset No. 1 Oakland Catholic in the other Class 5A semifinal Tuesday night.

“I was extremely proud of our defense tonight. That’s been kind of an Achilles’ heel this season. We’ve had our ups and downs with it,” said South Fayette coach Bryan Bennett. “We’ve hit a stride, though, and the kids have bought in. McKeesport is a talented team, and we knew we had our hands full.”

On top of great defense throughout, South Fayette went 17 for 21 at the charity stripe, including making its first nine attempts in the fourth quarter and 13 of 14 in the final quarter overall.

“We work on that right now. We know if you’re going to make a run in the playoffs, the foul line is going to be critical,” said Bennett. “They’re focused when we go to that line.”

McKeesport (20-4) held South Fayette (17-8) without a point until there was 2:34 left in the first quarter, but only led 4-2 after a pair of free throws by Alexa Ankrum got the Lions on the board.

Then from 1:50 remaining in the first until 1:52 remaining of the second, McKeesport did not score a point.

In the meantime, South Fayette went on a 12-0 run to lead 17-10.

South Fayette closed the half with a 22-15 lead but only scored two points in the third quarter, taking a 24-22 lead to the fourth.

“I’d have like to have another quarter,” said McKeesport coach Matt Miller. “We found ourselves defensively in the second half, but then we had to start fouling. Hats off to them. They played a great game.”

A 25-19 fourth quarter heavy on free throws sealed the victory for the Lions, who lost 62-44 to McKeesport in a nonsection matchup Jan. 18. In that game, McKeesport senior Kaylee Charles scored 23 points and helped to dominate the glass.

Tuesday night was the reversal, as McKeesport got a game-high 18 points from Rachael Manfredo but was out-rebounded 31-22. The Tigers only shot 19% (3 for 16) from the arc and 32% overall for the game.

The Tigers will now go to a third-place game against Oakland Catholic before playing in the state tournament.

“(Charles being out) was a huge difference. We got crushed on the boards,” said Miller. “It’s hard. This hurts, but hopefully we’ll turn around and make a bit of a run.”

Bennett talked about the Lions adjusting from the first meeting to make sure they earned a finals berth.

“We knew we had to stop the inside game. The first time we played them, we had 17 turnovers and allowed 17 second-chance points,” said Bennett. “A lot of the mistakes we made were self-inflicted. Our kids got together and saw what mistakes they needed to clean up.”

Juliette Leroux led the Lions with 16 points and Haylie Lamonde added 13 in the win.

South Fayette and Armstrong have not met this season but will Saturday in Oakland with the Lions’ vying for a third consecutive 5A title. Gone are Ava Leroux, Rachel Black and Maddie Webber, but back are a bunch of veteran players who have title-game experience.

“I’ve told everybody all season and all last season that we had a lot of talented kids that if they were at other schools, two would’ve started as freshmen,” said Bennett. “These kids are as good as anybody. We had talent and have it. It’s been about getting them to put it together. I know Armstrong is talented and we’ll have to handle what we do and make some adjustments to what they do.”

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