NEW CASTLE —
It’s uncharted territory for the Mohawk High girls basketball team.
The Lady Warriors are one of eight teams left in the PIAA Class AA playoffs — the first time the program has achieved that distinction since 1983.
If it hopes to advance further in the state competition, Mohawk (19-7) will need to take down a team that is used to the big stage in Seton-La Salle. The teams will square off at 6 p.m. today in a quarterfinal-round matchup at New Castle High School.
The Lady Rebels took home a WPIAL and PIAA title during a 30-0 season last year under former head coach and Union High graduate Dennis Squeglia.
With new coach Josh Ashaolu and a plethora of returning talent this season, which includes two Duquesne University recruits, Seton-La Salle (26-2) has proved it hasn’t lost much momentum.
To call the Lady Rebels offense high-powered would be an understatement — the team averages 69.8 points per game. Seton-La Salle cruised 67-16 against Kane in the first round of the state playoffs and followed that up with a 58-38 victory over Greensburg Central Catholic.
Angela Heintz and Cassidy Walsh are Duquesne recruits.
Heintz, a 5-foot-10 guard, is the unquestioned leader of the Lady Rebels as a senior. Along with leading the team by a wide margin in assists with 163, she also buckets 9.1 points a game.
“She’s the best passer on the team and plays all over the court for us,” Ashaolu said. “She’s a great leader. She does a good job of getting on the girls as a coach in the gym.”
“She’s the key to their offense,” Lady Warriors coach Mike O’Lare said. “She’s fundamentally sound and explosive. She’s the centerpiece of that team.”
Missing most of the last three weeks with a stress fracture in her foot, Ashaolu anticipates Walsh will be ready against Mohawk. At 5-7, the sophomore guard averages 10.7 points a game. Walsh was recruited by Duquesne in her freshman year and made a verbal commitment to the school soon after.
“They’ve kind of been saving her and using her when needed. She’s a very good player. They have so many weapons, they can lose a player like that and continue to win.”
Naje Gibson, a 6-0 guard/forward, is the team’s leading scorer at 13.5 points per contest. She also carries the team on the boards, grabbing 6.6 rebounds a game.
“She’s their most athletic, dynamic scorer,” O’Lare said. “She can really get moving quickly with the basketball. She’s another Division I-type player that they have.”
PLAYING A ROLE
Shelby Brown, a 5-7 senior guard, has taken her game to the next level in the PIAA playoffs for the Lady Warriors. In a 52-44 first-round victory over Everett, Brown notched 27 points. It was more of the same against North East with 25 in a 56-49 decision.
“She does a little bit of everything. She’s the engine that makes them go,” Ashaolu said. “That’s going to be a big focus of ours. That’s our number one thing on our board on how to attack them. We want to attack her offensively and play great defense. We want to force her to play defense up and down the court.”
Other players have stepped up offensively during Mohawk’s playoff run. Devon Giancola, a 5-8 senior guard, exploded for 13 points in the first half against Everett and has the ability to take a game over with her ability to shoot the 3-pointer. For the season, Giancola has tallied 37 total 3-pointers and 8.9 points a game.
“We try to get the kids to think about if they were to guard themselves, how would they play themselves? At this point, teams know who you are and are coming after your top players,” O’Lare said. “Devon is key because they’re going to try to take her off her game. She’s going to have to carry the burden of scoring.”
A key matchup in this game will be how Seton-La Salle will match up with 5-10 forward Paige Ruby. The senior notched 11 points against North East and could have had even more if she didn’t uncharacteristically miss 6 of 8 shots from the foul line. Ruby averages 9.3 points a contest this season and shoots 59 percent from the foul line.
“Most of the post girls we go up against are bigger (than Mohawk’s), but they don’t play like it,” Ashaolu said. “Mohawk may not have the tallest girls, but they play harder than those bigger players. They know their role on the team and play it perfectly. There’s nothing flashy. They do their job and they’re effective.”
The Lady Warriors have gotten solid offensive contributions from bench players Samantha Carr and Aliya Gage as of late.
Carr has recorded 12 total points in the team’s two state games. Though she may come off the bench, the 5-4 sophomore is tied for third on the team with 10 3-pointers.
“Sam’s been grinding it out all year,” O’Lare said. “With every game that’s progressed, she’s getting a minute here and a minute there. Now she’s really getting big minutes for us as an impact player.”
Gage, a 5-8 freshman guard, was out for more than a month with an illness. She made her impact felt by scoring two points and playing key minutes against North East.
Averaging 46 points a game, Mohawk doesn’t have the potential to score as much as the Lady Rebels on a given night. As a result, O’Lare knows his team will have to play strong defensively. The Lady Warriors have allowed 40.2 points a game this season.
“We don’t want to turn it into a shootout and control the tempo as much as we can. We do want to control the possessions and make sure the game is in the 50s.
“I think their offense is the byproduct of their defense. A lot of people might look at their 70 points a game as offensive skill. A lot of it is coming off their defense causing turnovers and getting easy baskets.”
Ashaolu doesn’t know what to expect from a Mohawk team that likes to switch up its defensive looks.
“I’ve seen zone, but I’ve also seen man. I haven’t seen them press too much, but I do see a couple different presses from them,” Ashaolu said. “They like to run a 3-2 zone or man against some teams. We’re preparing for everything because we don’t know how they’re going to come at us.”
ODDS AND ENDS
The game being at New Castle High comes as a relief to O’Lare.
“After traveling like we’ve traveled the last couple games, it’ll be nice to get a two-minute bus ride,” he said. “It’ll be nice to rest and not worry about the travel.”
With the close location, O’Lare also anticipates a large contingency of Mohawk fans.
“We hope the fans turn out (tonight). If we’re going to have more people show up, the expectation is higher. We have to play well and play as hard as we possibly can.”
By losing to Bishop Canevin in the WPIAL championship 56-47, the Lady Rebels failed to live up to the results of last year’s team. However, Ashaolu believes his team isn’t in line for another disappointment.
“I think with the success we’ve had the past couple years, there are high standards. Our team has a really good season and gotten better,” he said. “Everybody has gotten better over the course of the year. We stress in practice individual development throughout the year. We’ve learned to play better and read the defense. I think our basketball IQ has gotten a bit better.”
The winner moves on to the state semifinals and will meet the survivor of the Bishop Canevin-Burrell contest Tuesday at a time and site to be determined.
NEW CASTLE —
It’s uncharted territory for the Mohawk High girls basketball team.
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