WEXFORD — The Ellwood City Lincoln High boys basketball team did it.
The Wolverines, seeded No. 11, conquered four teams to reach the WPIAL Class 3A championship game. Monday night, the team added another victim — the No. 1 seed.
Ellwood City’s Alexander Roth made two crucial free throws with 10.8 seconds remaining and hauled in the final rebound to help the team secure a 53-50 victory over top-seeded South Allegheny at North Allegheny High School.
“It’s amazing. It really hasn’t hit me,” Wolverines coach Steve Antuono said after his team won the title. “I’ve dreamed about this as a player and as a coach. I got to do it in ‘03 (as an assistant for the Union boys).
“This has been my team. When you take the Ellwood job, people would say ‘why would you take the Ellwood job? Why would you want to take that job?’ There’s no job that opens that’s a good job. A lot of this started years ago with a couple little kids. Three of them out there in particular. And then you add Joey Roth to the mix and my role players.”
It’s the first WPIAL championship in school history for Ellwood City and first appearance in the title tilt since 1986.
“These are great kids with a great support system,” Antuono said. “This is a true team. A true family.”
The Wolverines (14-4) advance to the PIAA playoffs and will meet either the District 5 or District 9 champion on Saturday at a time and site to be determined.
Ellwood City defeated No. 22 Valley at home (72-20), before topping No. 6 Avonworth (58-53), No. 3 Shady Side Academy (81-73 in overtime) and No. 2 Neshannock (60-51) all on the opposing teams’ floor just to reach the championship game.
“We knock off 6, 3 and 2 all in their backyard. And then we beat the No. 1 seed for the championship. What can people say now?,” an elated Antuono said.
Leading 51-50 with 10.8 seconds to go, Roth stepped to the foul line for a one-and-one. Roth made the first free throw, prompting the Gladiators to call their final timeout.
Roth came out of the timeout calm. He eyed the basket and knocked down the second freebie as well for a 53-50 advantage.
“I was just focused, focused, focused on those free throws,” Roth said. “We shoot them every day for 20 minutes straight.
“I went to the line, my legs were shaking a little bit there. But I knew I had the focus and I knew I had to make those two for (South Allegheny) to need a three to tie the game at best.”
Gladiators coach Tony DiCenzo drew up a play during his team’s final timeout.
“We ran a side out of bounds play,” DiCenzo said. “We got the ball into Antonio’s (Epps) hands where we wanted it.
“We wanted to give him an opportunity to create something and he got a good look at it. The guy was kind of hanging on him a little bit and he just wasn’t able to finish the play.”
The errant 3-pointer was grabbed in the air by Roth with one second left and time ran out, igniting a wild celebration by the Ellwood faithful.
“I was going up for that,” Roth said of that final rebound. “I was jumping my highest. Using all my energy right there. I jumped up and said that ball is mine, easily.”
South Allegheny’s season ends at 17-5.
Alexander Roth scored a game-high 19 points for the Wolverines and his younger brother Joseph Roth recorded 17. Steve Antuono, the coach’s son, was next with 14 for the winners.
Omar Faulkner scored 18 points to lead the Gladiators.
“We watched him and we knew he’s an inside threat,” Alexander Roth said. “We ran our zone. Whenever he went to the high key, we didn’t put a body on him. We didn’t see him shoot a lot. So we were going to let him shoot.”
Though Faulkner paced South Allegheny in scoring, foul trouble altered his game a bit. Faulkner was hit with his second personal foul just 1:56 into the game and Ellwood City trailing 5-3. DiCenzo was forced to sit Faulkner for a good portion of the opening period.
“That was huge,” Coach Antuono said of Faulkner’s two quick fouls. “We removed him from the game and we removed him from the rim.”
The teams traded leads in the first quarter before settling on a 12-12 deadlock after the opening eight minutes.
The Wolverines grabbed their largest lead of the opening half at 20-16 on a 3-pointer by Steve Antuono with 2:42 to go in the first half. The Gladiators, though, went on a quick 6-0 run to capture the lead at 22-20.
The teams were tied at 22 with Ellwood City possessing the ball as the clock was winding down in the half. The Wolverines were working the ball around for the final shot. But South Allegheny was able to get a steal and Antonio Epps converted the miscue by going the length of the floor for a layup at the horn to give the Gladiators a 24-22 advantage at the break.
The Wolverines turned the ball over five times in the second stanza.
“We did turn it over a bit in the second quarter,” Coach Antuono said. “We knew the 2-2-1 was coming; we prepared for it.
“We were OK at halftime. We felt like we belonged. We were right there. We’ve been battle tested. We were down 12 against Shady Side and came back to win.”
Said Alexander Roth, “We were a little dead in the locker room. We all came in and regrouped and we got all excited again because we were only down two. Other teams were down six or eight to them at halftime. We knew we were in a good place. I wanted us to keep our energy up.”
Roth tossed in 10 of his markers in the opening half.
South Allegheny grabbed its largest buffer of the game at 36-26 with 4:25 remaining in the third period. As quick as the Gladiators built that 10-point margin, the Wolverines cut it back down to size.
Ellwood City went on a 9-0 run to get within 36-35 with 2:21 left in the third quarter. Joseph Roth capped the rally with a 3-pointer. Steve Antuono and Milo Sesti also had 3-pointers during the run.
The Wolverines, though were down 40-37 after three periods.
South Allegheny led 48-44 with 4:45 remaining. Ellwood, though, wouldn’t go away.
“They executed well throughout the game,” DiCenzo said. “They had a lot of lengthy possessions. We defended them well.
“Then they got us to break down and they took advantage of it. They’re a great basketball team. Credit to them for winning the game.”
Steve Antuono split a pair of foul shots with 41.8 seconds left to give the Wolverines the lead for good.