North Xtra: Fox Chapel battles to stay in playoff hunt

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After failing to qualify for the postseason two seasons in a row, the Fox Chapel Area boys basketball team won 17 games last season and made it to the WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.

With the Foxes’ top players returning this season, expectations were high. Fox Chapel entered the season as the Post-Gazette’s No. 4-ranked team in Class AAAA.

But a few close losses in section play have the Foxes (12-4, 5-4)on the playoff bubble heading into the final few weeks of the season. A 57-39 victory against Franklin Regional helped their cause, however.

Following Tuesday’s games, Gateway (12-5, 8-1) leads the section standings, followed by Plum (13-2, 7-2), Central Catholic (9-7, 6-3) with the Foxes tied with Franklin Regional (9-6, 5-4). McKeesport (8-8, 4-5) is just a game behind them.

“We’ve just had a lack of consistency,” Fox Chapel coach Zach Skrinjar said. “A lot of our games have come down to the final plays and we’ve won some and lost some. We just need to come out ready to play more consistently as a team.”

Three of the Foxes’ four losses are by three points or fewer. Skrinjar said there isn’t one specific area he can pinpoint for the team’s inconsistency.

“Sometimes, we’re taking things too much for granted,” Skrinjar said. “Other times we’re out of position. And there are games where we lose focus and then our guys try to do too much to get back into it.

“It’s always something different, which makes it frustrating.”

The Foxes started the season looking like the top-five team they were expected to be, winning 10 of their first 11 games. But the Foxes had a backloaded league schedule, and the team dropped back-to-back games to section leaders Gateway and Plum by a combined five points.

Then, after getting back in the win column with an impressive 13-point win against Central Catholic, Fox Chapel lost by 11 to a McKeesport team the Foxes had beaten by 12 earlier in the season.

The loss against the Tigers put the Foxes in fifth place entering this week, but despite the recent rough stretch, the Foxes are staying strong.

“The results recently have been tough, but we’re still staying together,” senior guard Matt D’Amico said. “We’re just trying to stay positive and know that we have to stick together if we want to be successful.”

The return of all-section performers D’Amico and Brian Papich, along with junior guard Billy Urso, is why the team had such high expectations. And the trio has been good, averaging around 50 points per game.

But Skrinjar thinks his backcourt stars can be even better.

“I think they can do a little bit more,” Skrinjar said. “We want the basketball in their hands the majority of the time and we’re trying to get them to get to the rim more often instead of settling for jump shots.”

Because when the Foxes don’t have a good shooting night, as was the case against the Tigers Friday, they can struggle as they are often at a size disadvantage.

Skrinjar has the team working more in practice on its defensive rebounding and limiting teams’ ability to drive to the basket, so the Foxes can better overcome shooting slumps.

But D’Amico thinks the players aren’t doing their part in practice and that needs to change if the Foxes wish to make their second consecutive playoff appearance.

“We have to work harder in practice,” D’Amico said. “Recently, I think we’ve been slacking off and not taking it as seriously as we should. We don’t have the sense of urgency we should have and we need to step it up if we want to get to the playoffs.”

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