Westmoreland basketball notebook: Belle Vernon aims to improve its defense

Thursday, March 5, 2020 | 5:37 PM

Ask Belle Vernon players about their runner-up finish in the WPIAL, and they immediately get defensive.

The Leopards (19-7) think the result against Highlands (22-3) could have been different — or at least, closer — in last week’s WPIAL Class 4A championship had they amped up their effort on defense.

“Our defense can always improve,” said senior forward Mitchell Poulot, who had 10 points in the title game.

Belle Vernon, which opens the PIAA playoffs Friday night against District 9 champion Clearfield (15-8) at St. Marys, is one of the highest-scoring teams in the WPIAL (69.0 ppg). But the Leopards allow 61.5.

That average dipped some in recent weeks as they limited three playoff opponents — Derry, Quaker Valley and New Castle — to 50.3 points. Highlands, though, erupted for 72, 40 in the second half.

A few more stops could have prevented Highlands from adding to the momentum that carried it to its first WPIAL title in 25 years.

The Golden Rams’ Johnny Crise had 23 points and 14 rebounds, and teammate Korry Myers hit six 3-pointers.

“We need to be more aggressive on the defensive end and move more offensively,” Leopards senior forward Jared Hartman said. “We can’t stand still like we did in the championship game. If we play together as a team, we’ll be fine.”

Next man up

Senior guard Cam Nusser, who averaged 17 points and broke numerous 3-point records at Belle Vernon this season, no longer is on the team.

Nusser was dismissed because of an off-the-court incident. He also missed the Leopards’ WPIAL semifinal against New Castle for an undisclosed reason.

The Leopards will look to backup guards such as junior Jake Haney and sophomore Daniel Gordan to help fill a big void in the backcourt.

“Cam’s a great player and arguably one of the best shooters in the WPIAL,” senior guard Hunter Ruokonen said. “It is always tough in that regard. But we’re taught that with whatever happens, if someone goes down or anything, we just have to keep moving forward.”

Gallagher in town

Local fans who have not seen Laurel Highlands standout freshman Rodney Gallagher play can get a look at him Friday night.

The WPIAL Class 5A champion Mustangs (17-8) will open the PIAA playoffs against York Suburban (21-7) at 6 p.m. at Greensburg Salem.

Gallagher, mature beyond his years and clearly comfortable on a big stage, put on a show in the WPIAL championship, scoring 24 points and making two free throws with 4.8 seconds remaining to give the Mustangs a 52-51 win over Mars for their first title since 1968.

When Laurel Highlands upset No. 1 seed Penn Hills, 62-60, in the WPIAL quarterfinals at Norwin, Gallagher had 20 points.

Gallagher is a friend of Bronny James, the son of Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. Gallagher and the younger James played on the same AAU team.

Local games

Greensburg Salem also will host two girls games Saturday with Southmoreland (24-1) taking on Huntingdon (13-11) at 2 p.m. in Class 4A, followed by Clairton (20-4) and Blacklick Valley (17-7) at 3:30 in Class A.

Other boys games in Westmoreland County include Mars (19-6) vs. Elizabethtown (19-9) at 6 Friday night at Valley, followed by Vincentian (21-4) and AC-Valley (16-9) at 7:30.

Kiski Area will host two boys games Friday night: Cornell (18-7) vs. Saltsburg (13-11) at 6 in Class A; and Highlands (22-3) vs. Harbor Creek (17-8) at 7:30 in Class 4A.

On Saturday, the same site has North Catholic (24-2) and Westmont Hilltop (19-7) at 3 in a Class 3A boys game.

Kelly to coach

Former Penn-Trafford standout Sean Kelly, a sophomore guard at York College, has had coaching aspirations since high school.

He is breaking in on the AAU level.

Kelly plans to serve as an assistant for the York Ballers 2021 team. One of his York teammates also coaches in the organization.

Kelly has played in 26 games (13.0 minutes) as a backup guard for York (22-5), which won the Capital Athletic Conference title.

York opens the NCAA Division III Tournament 5 p.m. Friday against St. John Fisher.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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