North Xtra: It’s a battle for fourth in Section 3 boys basketball

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Pine-Richland was good enough to go 8-0 in non-section play during the 2012-13 regular season, but the Rams weren’t good enough to get into the postseason.

Such is the life of a team in the ultra-competitive Class AAAA Section 3.

“We always talk about it like it’s the old Big East Conference,” Pine-Richland coach Brian Gaetano said. “You play a great team every night. And so far this year, it’s played out kind of like we expected.”

The Rams watched last season as section foes New Castle, Hampton, North Allegheny and Seneca Valley all qualified for the WPIAL tournament and advanced to the semifinals, with New Castle beating Hampton for the WPIAL title.

New Castle (12-0, 7-0) and Hampton (13-1, 6-1) are the class of the section and the WPIAL once again this season. New Castle defeated Hampton, 58-42, Tuesday to take the section lead. North Allegheny (11-2, 5-2), meanwhile, sits at third in the section, and might also be the third best team in the classification.

“I think Hampton and New Castle have kind of separated themselves a bit from everyone else,” North Hills coach Buzz Gabos said. “And North Allegheny has had a lot of success outside of the league. I think those are the three best teams in Quad-A.”

Which means, barring a collapse by one of the three top teams, the rest of Section 3 is fighting for just one postseason spot.

And it could be quite a fight.

Shaler (2-12, 0-7) is likely out of the race, having lost its first six league games by an average of more than 30 points per game. Butler Area (4-10, 1-6 after Tuesday night’s loss to Seneca Valley) is a step ahead of Shaler, but if it can turn some of its close losses — the Golden Tornado lost to Pine-Richland by five and North Hills by four in overtime — into wins, it may get itself back into the race.

At the halfway point of section play, however, it looks likely that the fourth playoff spot will be a three-team race between North Hills (8-6, 3-4 after Tuesday’s loss at North Allegheny), Seneca Valley (7-6, 3-4 after Tuesday’s win at Butler) and Pine-Richland (6-7, 3-4 after defeating Shaler Tuesday).

The Indians, Raiders and Rams each went 1-1 in games against each other in the first go-around of the league schedule. Also, they were all swept by New Castle, Hampton and North Allegheny.

“I think Pine-Richland’s schedule was much like ours, where we started with New Castle, Seneca Valley and Hampton and in two of the three games, we had no chance,” Gabos said.

“We may not think we’re as bad as the scores suggest, but psychologically it’s tough for the guys at Christmas when we’re 0-3 in league play [to make them believe] that we’re still in it.

“It really puts the pressure on you to win the rest of your games, whether they’re at home or on the road. And it’s hard to win anywhere on the road.”

That’s especially true for less experienced teams. Seneca Valley lost much of its size inside from last season with the graduations of Easton Bazzoli, R.J. McCauley and Alex Snyder. But Zach Snyder, a 6-foot-6 junior forward, has emerged as a go-to scorer in the paint, while the team as a whole has gone to a more up-tempo style of play with a smaller lineup.

North Hills has a few seniors in its rotation in Dylan Mitchell, Danny White and C.J. Paulauskas, but also relies heavily on sophomore Shawndale Jones and juniors Ryan Burek and Kindhal Taylor.

Pine-Richland had just one starter, senior Dean Steliotes, return from last season’s team. In fact, Steliotes is the only player with prior varsity experience on the Rams’ roster, according to Gaetano. Junior Ben DiNucci and freshman Andrew Petcash have played large roles for the Rams.

“North Hills I think is in a very similar situation to us in that I think they’re improving as the season progresses,” Gaetano said. “These last few weeks, we’ve played much better. Our young guys have the effort and approach needed to win in this league.”

It could make for an exciting and unpredictable second half of the league schedule. The spotlight will be on the games between the three teams, but none of the teams can afford to lose to teams below them in the standings, either.

And if the Rams, Indians or Raiders can knock off one of the powerhouse teams, such as Seneca Valley almost did earlier this season when it lost in overtime to North Allegheny?

“That would certainly help,” Gaetano said. “That’s what Seneca Valley did when they beat Hampton last season. We were fighting for that last spot, and they won that game and then took care of business down the stretch.

“We can’t just resign ourselves to the fact we’re going to lose to the top teams. We have to think we can win every game. … And anytime you can win one of those that most write off as a loss, that’s key.”

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