NEW CASTLE —
Playoff experience is on the side of the Neshannock High basketball team.
But after being ousted by an average of 41 points in last two WPIAL postseasons, it is a trend that that Lancers would like to change.
When Neshannock (17-5) travels to Highlands High to battle Apollo-Ridge in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs at noon tomorrow, it will be the team’s sixth-straight year with a postseason appearance and a chance to redeem recent playoff woes.
“It’s six years in a row. I think we have some guys who are proud of that fact, but It doesn’t mean anything if you get in the playoffs and get beat by 40,” Lancers coach John Corey said. “I think this new group is very excited to get on the court and be part of something that is a lot better than last year.”
Experience is not on the side of the Vikings (15-7), who will be making their first playoff appearance in three seasons.
“None of these kids have ever been in the playoffs in basketball. It’s kind of new for us,” fourth-year coach Matt Gourley said. “This year we had good participation in the summer. A lot of kids play basketball, but are mainly football players. Football is kind of number one around here. All the kids and their interest goes to that.”
Both teams carry a plethora of talent at every position.
At guard, the Vikings run five deep with players scoring at least 200 points on the season.
“They have some good athletes on both ends of the floor. It’s going to be a test,” Corey said. “From us, we have to play the type of defense we’ve been capable of playing all season long — everybody doing their job. They have four guys who are averaging double figures. Their scoring is very balanced. We just have to guard all of them and do a good job on all of their guys.”
Probably the best of the bunch is 6-foot-1 sophomore Trey Tipton, who holds the team high in points per game (10.4), free-throw shooting (67 percent), assists per game (4.6), blocked shots per game (1.4) and rebounds per game (8.0).
“The Tipton kid looks to be extremely athletic for only being a sophomore,” Corey said. “His length and athleticism stuck out. He obviously has a knack for the basketball.”
Apollo-Ridge features deadly outside shooting with three players accumulating at least 34 3-pointers this season. Evan Davis, a 6-1 senior, paces the bunch with 58. Lucas Burrelli, a 5-11 senior, is next with 46. Alex Smith, a 6-1 sophomore, follows with 31.
Post play is a strong suit for the Vikings, with twin-brothers Cody and Connor Billingsley, both listed at 6-4, having the upper hand in the size matchup.
“They got the twin brothers that make up their post game,” Corey said. “Especially Connor, he’s very talented.”
There is no secret where the offense begins and ends for the Lancers.
“Number 23,” Gourley said. “Looks like to me that their whole offense revolves around him. He’s one that really stands out. I know he’s up there in the WPIAL in points. He’s a good player, and he’s going to score his points. We have to do a good job on him and keep him under wraps.”
Gourley refers to Lawrence County’s leading scorer and Neshannock point guard Ernie Burkes. The 5-10 junior averages a county high 20.8 points a game, including 43 3-pointers and a 75.8 free-throw percentage.
“We’ve seen a lot of players like him in our section that we’ve faced this year,” Gourley said. “He can penetrate, and it looks like he can shoot pretty quick.”
If Apollo-Ridge is able to contain Burkes, the Lancers can attack with several other options.
“I think they’re all good. I know Matt McKinney is an outside threat,” Gourley said. “Jim Medure is a younger kid, but he’s really good inside. Tyler Haswell looks like a really big, strong kid.”
McKinney, a 6-1 junior, paces Neshannock with a team-high 50 3-pointers. With the emergence of freshmen guards Frank Fraschetti, who has connected on 20 3-pointers, and Ethan Moose, the Lancers counter the potent shooting game of Apollo Ridge with one of their own.
Neshannock is hoping Haswell and Medure will be able to control the Billingsley twins inside. Haswell, a 6-3 junior, mixes a scoring touch (10 ppg.) with a strong rebounding ability. Medure, a 6-3 sophomore provides solid grit and valuable minutes for the Lancers.
“Their team is a very physical team. Their forwards have great body control,” Gourley said. “They really do a lot of the fundamentals well.”
The Lancers and Vikings don’t stray far from one another when it comes to styles and philosophies up and down the court.
“Watching the Neshannock films, we’re very similar teams,” Gourley said. “We both like to push the ball up the floor and play man-to-man. It should be a good game.”
Corey was quick to agree with Gourley on the similarities.
“I see it especially with their balanced scoring,” he said. “Your points per game don’t look like that if guys aren’t playing unselfish and sharing the basketball. They get the ball out in transition and score in the open court.”
The Lancers tallied 66 points a game in the regular season and Apollo-Ridge managed 60.9 per contest.
On the defensive front is where the two teams share the most in common, as both play a man-to-man.
“Mainly, their primary defense is man, and they have the athletes to do it” Gourley said. “You also have their half-court press we’re going to have to contend with.
Said Corey of the Vikings’ man-to-man defense, “They’re a pretty athletic team. They do a little bit of zone. I saw some half-court and full-court presses out of that man defense.”
Neshannock surrendered 54.7 points a game in the regular season, while Apollo-Ridge gave up 51.7.
ODDS AND ENDS
The Lancers will make the 90-minute drive from Neshannock to Highlands High School for what will be a noon start. Corey isn’t worried that the early-morning travel will impact his team in any way.
“Wherever we have to play is where we want to play. It’s an opportunity to play at least one more basketball game,” he said. “I never get too caught up in any of that. If it’s our next game, that’s where it’s at. There’s a lot of college basketball games that start at noon. If they can do it, we can do it.”
(To check out this week’s “Big Shots” feature on The Bounce, CLICK HERE.)
NEW CASTLE —
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