Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monessen ready for shot at Vincentian

Monessen's Justice Rawlins
The WPIAL quarterfinals have come to a close and the semifinals are upon us. None of the matchups are as intriguing as the one in Class A boys basketball. After soundly defeating Wilkinsburg on Friday night, Monessen clinched a spot in the PIAA playoffs and more importantly, earned the right to face Vincentian Academy on Tuesday with a trip to the AJ Palumbo Center on the line.

Vincentian has been the talk of the WPIAL all season with a 22-2 record and a deep roster. Instead of debating on whether private schools have a foot up on the competition, let’s focus on the one public school that emerged from Class A to make the semifinals: Monessen.

The Greyhounds have a plethora of big game experience, including a contingent of football players that spoiled Clairton’s dominant winning streak in the fall.

Clintell Gillaspie has been consistent on both sides of the court and physically, can match up against a guard or a forward.

When I covered Monessen’s football playoff loss to Neshannock, at the conclusion of the game, Justice Rawlins knelt down on one knee in the far end zone; crying with his head in his hands. After defeating Clairton, many expected Monessen to make a deep run in the playoffs. That did not happen, but that loss has this basketball team hungry for a shot at Lincoln Park. Rawlins plays a tenacious brand of basketball by grabbing the tough rebounds and is not shy of displaying emotion. Like his teammates, he is a winner with a massive chip on his shoulder.

They have heard the media talking up Lincoln Park and Vincentian all season long while they dominated the competition in Class A and unseated Uniontown, a Class AAA semifinalist, on the road. On the other hand, the Royals average a Class A-best 90.9 points per game with their lone losses coming against City League runner-up Obama Academy and Summit Academy, which was eliminated in the Class AA semifinals by Seton-La Salle.

The talk has surrounded Gillaspie, Rawlins and the defensive play of Javon Brown, but it is the depth of this Greyhounds team that has gotten them this far. Freshmen Jaden Altomore and Justice Rice are major contributors off the bench, while junior Noah Rullo has relieved Brown during games without the offense skipping a beat.

Let’s skip the details and get down to the question everyone has been asking: can Monessen upset Vincentian? I’ve had multiple members of the media tell me that there is no chance, but my immediate response is always the same: have you seen Monessen play this season?

Greyhounds head coach Joe Salvino has this group ready to wash the bitter taste out of their mouths after that football playoff loss. With WPIAL titles in both Class AA and A, he is familiar with what it takes for a team to win playoff games against top competition. He specifically tailors the non-section schedule to prepare them for this moment. Salvino told me weeks ago that the team wanted to be mentioned with Vincentian and Lincoln Park as the best in Class A. Wish granted.

I took some heat on Twitter this week when I pointed out Uniontown cancelling a rematch with Monessen to finish the regular season, but to be honest with you; I can’t blame them. Why would a Class AAA team that only lost one regular season game walk into a trap to finish the season against a hungry Greyhounds team, on senior night nonetheless? The smart thing was to rest for the post season, although another Uniontown/Monessen game would have been great to see. They know how physically draining games against Monessen are and Vincentian will find that out on Tuesday at Montour High School.

It will take a perfect defensive effort to stop the Royals. Junior guard Ryan Wolf  (24.5 ppg) is a sharpshooter that has to be accounted for, while Jamison Nee and Jay Cortese, who both stand at 6-1, average double figures.

I do think a team with size could give Monessen trouble, but Vincentian does not have that. They have a solid lineup that is very similar to the Greyhounds. Everyone has all but written Lincoln Park into the championship game so the true question is: whom will they play?

"It’s going to come down to who is going to out hustle who," Monessen head coach Joe Salvino said. "One thing Vincentian has is they are probably better outside shooters than we are. I think everyone on their team can shoot threes. We’re going to have to eliminate that, we’re going to have to play good defense and we can’t turn the ball over."
If Monessen hits shots early and frustrates the Royals’ offense, I truly believe it will be the Greyhounds playing for the title on Friday night at Palumbo.

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