East Xtra: Gateway scrambles into playoff field

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While higher seeding is preferred, the Gateway girls basketball team knows very well anything can happen once the playoffs start.

The veterans on the team have been on both sides of upsets in their careers.

Some of the players were around in 2012 when the third-seeded Gators were upset by No. 14 Upper St. Clair in the first round. Even more were present last year when Gateway marched to the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals as a No. 7 seed.

At 11-7 overall and 6-5 in Class AAAA Section 2 (before a non-section game Wednesday at Keystone Oaks), Gateway will be looking to spring the upset this year, not avoid one.

With its section final Friday night at McKeesport, Gateway will likely finish in fourth place in the section behind Fox Chapel (16-4, 11-1), Plum (13-7, 8-3) and Penn Hills (11-8, 7-4).

"We have been at both ends of that stick," Gateway coach Cornelious Nesbit said. "We were a No. 3 seed and got knocked off in the first round and last year we had to play ourselves into the playoffs and then we make the semifinals as a No. 7 seed.

"Our philosophy is that the playoffs are a new season. Throw the records out the window. You have to go start a new season and everybody starts 0-0."

Gateway may be one of the most dangerous fourth-place teams in the playoffs this season. It has posted non-section wins at Penn-Trafford, against Upper St. Clair and against Oakland Catholic.

Gateway was dealt a blow early in the season when 5-foot-10 senior guard/forward Katey Wilson, a returning starter, was lost for the season with an injury. The team struggled early on without Wilson, dropping three of its first five games and starting 2-3 in the section.

"When we lost Katey, we lost a lot of experience," Nesbit said. "We lost talent and we lost things that we wouldn't be able to replace."

Wilson has remained instrumental to the team even though she is unable to play.

"When we were going through our little losing streak, she was speaking to the team, telling them 'You just never know when it might be your last game,'" Nesbit said. "When you hear it from another kid, it puts a sense of urgency in you. At 2-3 there wasn't any panic, it was more about, 'Let's figure this out together.'"

With Wilson out, Gateway leaned on its two other returning starters, 5-8 senior guard Jada Epps and 6-0 junior guard Morgan Hainsey. Epps made the transition from point guard to shooting guard this season.

"Jada has had a phenomenal year," Nesbit said. "She has shouldered a lot since the loss of Katey. We are asking her to score the basketball more and still be the playmaker that she was her junior year."

Epps leads the team averaging 13.6 points per game along with 3.9 assists and 3 steals per game.

Hainsey also switched positions this year, moving from forward to guard.

"Morgan has stepped up and she has increased her scoring average," Nesbit said. "She is showing her versatility.

"Long term, in college, she is kind of a wing player, so we went with it a year sooner. She has embraced her role. There are ups and downs, when you come from playing in the post, to now being asked to play as a guard. The mindset is different. She has done a great job and she has increased her scoring."

Hainsey is averaging 10.6 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game.

London Wade, a 5-6 junior, starts at point guard and 5-10 junior forward Alexis Young and 5-11 sophomore forward Jasmine Copeland also start. Wade and Young average 6.9 and 5.0 points per game respectively. Wade averages 3 assists and steals per game.

Gateway wraps up its regular season with a non-section challenge against Class A No. 1 Vincentian Academy on Monday.

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