The final week of the WPIAL basketball season is one predictably filled with intrigue and uncertainty as teams ardently vie for the chance to capture a section championship or even just qualify for the playoffs.
As fate and the schedulers have it, many of these teams that are fighting for those titles and precious playoff spots will square off against one another this week, with few of these races as heated as the one taking place in Class AAAA Section 2 between the boys' teams at Central Catholic, Gateway and Fox Chapel.
Entering the week, the teams had identical 10-2 records, with several of the squads playing each other this week in games that will decide which team will earn the section's top seed for the WPIAL playoffs.
Central Catholic looked to have the toughest road, one that ends with a game at Fox Chapel on Friday, where the Foxes (15-5, 10-3) have been almost unbeatable this season, as evidenced by their resounding 51-37 victory against Gateway last Friday. That streak came to an end Tuesday as Plum upset the Foxes, 54-51 in overtime.
Where some see challenges, however, the Vikings see opportunity in the mantra that "in order to be the best, you have to beat the best."
"We don't have to rely on anyone else, no excuses," Central Catholic coach Chuck Crummie said of his team's situation. "We just go out and play our game and let the cards fall where they may. We prefer it that way."
There's reason for Central to have a sense of optimism, as it won 11 of its last 13 games after a 4-3 start in which the Vikings struggled with injuries to key players. Central (15-5, 11-2) cleared one large hurdle Tuesday with a pulsating 79-76 win against Gateway (13-5, 10-3).
The team Central Catholic will tip off against Friday has been almost as impressive, however, with Fox Chapel reeling off a five-game win streak from Jan. 18 to Feb. 1. Guard Matt D'Amico has been a driving force for the Foxes, entering the week averaging 23.4 points per game.
A stiff final challenge will also come from Gateway, the two-time defending WPIAL Class AAAA champion. The Gators, though, have struggled recently, dropping two of their three games last week.
Despite these shortcomings, Gateway remains an extremely talented team with the likes of guards D.J. Boyce, Shomari Thomas and Delvon Randall, as well as guard/forward Deon Cottrell-Baker.
As the Gators proved last season when they finished behind Woodland Hills, you don't need to win the section title to end up as the WPIAL champion. Nonetheless, coaches such as Crummie still see some value in getting the top seed even if it's not a be-all and end-all.
"It's really important from a seeding standpoint and it gives you an easier first-round game, but we've learned from the past that you can win from any position in the bracket," Crummie said.
A dubious mark
It's been a sharp decline for the Woodland Hills boys basketball team, which had to replace a slew of key players from a team that finished in first place in Class AAAA Section 2 last season.
The Wolverines have yet to register a win in section play. If they loses their last game of the season Friday at Penn Hills, it will be the first time since the 2003-04 season that Woodland Hills went winless in section play.
As regular-season play wraps up in the WPIAL, here are some games to keep an eye on:
Friday -- Imani Christian at Wilkinsburg, 7:30 p.m. -- The two teams have identical 8-1 records in section play. The winner of this game will be the Class A Section 4 champion. Wilkinsburg won the previous meeting this season, notching a 94-83 victory Jan. 18 at Imani Christian. Forward Troy Simons and guard Khari Hicks of Imani Christian are two of the WPIAL's leading scorers.
Friday -- Burrell at Deer Lakes, 7:30 p.m. -- What a story Deer Lakes has been. After winning only three section games the previous two seasons, the Lancers (15-5) are 8-1 in Class AA Section 1 and can win the section title outright with a win against Burrell (14-6, 7-2). Deer Lakes has won eight games in a row, while Burrell has won five in a row. Deer Lakes edged Burrell, 48-44, on Jan. 15. J.J. Kowalkowski led Lancers with 16 points.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @craig_a_meyer