East Xtra: Gateway surprises with strong showing in postseason play

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There was no outright section title or No. 3 seed in the WPIAL playoffs for the Gateway High School girls basketball team this season.

Nor was there a blue-chip recruit and national All-American on the Gators roster.

There also was no first-round playoff disappointment.

The new-look Gators settled for a shared Class AAAA Section 2 title and a No. 7 seed in the WPIAL tournament, but rather than a first-round exit in the postseason, Gateway enjoyed a month-long ride in the playoffs. It reached the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA second round.

In the WPIAL tournament, Gateway knocked off No. 10 seed Oakland Catholic and No. 2 seed North Allegheny. It lost to eventual WPIAL champion Bethel Park in the WPIAL semifinals.

In the PIAA playoffs, Gateway traveled to Gannon University in Erie in the backyard of District 10 champion McDowell, from Millcreek Township, an Erie suburb. The Gators defeated McDowell, 50-49.

Their season came to an end in the PIAA second round with a 53-42 loss to Chartiers Valley, which eventually advanced to the PIAA semifinals.

Gateway did this all without Destiny Brown and her 24 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals per game. Brown graduated after last season. She was one of the most heavily recruited players in the country.

"I thought it was a great season," Gateway coach Cornelius Nesbit said. "I thought maybe in a lot of people's eyes we overachieved. From inside the locker room, I thought we would be good. I didn't realize how good we would be until halfway through this season."

Right after Christmas, Nesbit started to get an inkling that this could be a special group. His team brushed off an opening-season loss to Penn-Trafford to win its first three section games and win at New Castle in a non-section game. The team traveled to the Altoona holiday tournament and advanced to the final before losing to the hosts, 50-48.

"Even though we lost in the championship [at Altoona], I saw players step up and make plays," Nesbit said. "As a coaching staff, we became very comfortable knowing we had talent."

Gateway finished the regular season 18-4. They advanced to the playoffs with the taste of defeat fresh in their mind from last season when the No. 3-seeded Gators were surprised in the first round by Upper St. Clair, 55-53.

"Last year's disappointment was the motivating factor for the kids," Nesbit said. "Part of it was the fear of not wanting to go through that again in the first round. I think that kind of motivated them more."

It was a collective effort this year by Gateway with different players stepping up at various times. Junior guard Jada Epps, senior guard Chelsea Richardson, sophomore forward Morgan Hainsey, senior forward Maria Taylor and junior guard/forward Katey Wilson all played key roles at different points in theseason.

In the PIAA playoff win over McDowell, Wilson scored 12, Taylor and Richardson added 11 apiece, Wilson had eight rebounds, Taylor had seven and Hainsey had six rebounds and five blocks. In the PIAA playoff loss to Chartiers Valley, Wilson scored 15, Epps added 12.

"They trusted each other," Nesbit said. "They understood when one player got hot to find that girl until it was somebody else's turn to become a factor."

Gateway will lose senior starters Richardson and Taylor. Richardson has committed to play at Wheeling Jesuit University, Taylor will play at Clarion University. Epps, Wilson and Hainsey figure to be returning starters next season.

"I feel like chemistry was a big game-changer for us," Richardson said.

"This is the closest team on and off the court we have had at Gateway in a long time. The fact that we played unselfish team ball -- that took us a long way this year."

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