West Xtra: West Allegheny running into playoffs

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Entering the final full week of the regular season for district high school basketball teams, the playoff brackets and pretenders and contenders are starting to surface.

On any given night a team's magic number can go from one to thinking about who their first opponent in the playoffs will be.

West Allegheny, a school known more for greatness in football and soccer, has shown it has what it takes to be a contender on the hardwood as well in Class AAA.

The Indians got hot at the most opportune time and are in the midst of a four-game winning streak within Section 2 and have won six of their past seven overall.

But during that stretch, it was also nice to receive help from a friendly rival to help them clinch a playoff spot.

"We clinched when Central Valley beat Beaver on Thursday," said West Allegheny coach Josh Bears, who is in his 10th year as a head coach at the Imperial-based school. "It was nice to get that out of the way and focus on getting better and focus as a team."

Well if that was the case, then the Indians were in the zone after taking the court the very next night as it put an exclamation point on its playoff clinching with an 81-59 victory against Hopewell.

The Indians lit up the scoreboard with their highest offensive output since the first game of the season.

"I would say we were more focused than relaxed," Bears said. "The players circled this one on the calendar. [Hopewell] beat us earlier. That first game epitomized our season. We had spurts where we showed greatness. We wanted to show them that we were a different team and played with a chip on our shoulder."

Another game circled on their calendar was last Wednesday when they sought revenge after Blackhawk came into their gym earlier in the season and eked out a 51-49 win. Another chance at redemption and another success. The Indians exchanged the favor, winning a 48-42 defensive struggle on the Cougars' home court.

"After we won at Blackhawk we weren't mathematically in [the playoffs], but we felt like it would take a lot for us not to get in," Bears said. "They really played well. It gave us confidence at Blackhawk.

"That [first loss to Blackhawk] was another one that left a bad taste in our mouth. [The rematch at Blackhawk] was a playoff type environment. It made us better coming down the stretch."

Now at 12-9 overall and 6-5 in section play, the Indians had to fight through a lot of adversity to get to this point. West Allegheny started the year 2-5 in the section but found its way to the section's top four through strong defensive play.

"We have proven now that we can handle adversity," Bears said. "We are going to do what we have to do one possession at a time. They understand that everything starts on defense.

"We can score with the best of them but it isn't enough to trade baskets. We have to turn the tide of the game with our emotion and intensity on defense.

"Every good team I ever coached, we have struggled in the beginning of the season. Sometimes it just takes awhile. Two weeks ago we were on the outside looking in, so it just shows you how quickly things can change. We have won each of these games in a unique way."

The most unusual aspect about the team's turnaround is that it began with a loss at Ambridge. After losing that game on Jan. 14, one of the senior captains, J.T. Bayly reached out to Bears and told him that the players planned to hold a players-only meeting the next day.

"[Bayly] knows what it takes to be a hard worker," Bears said. "He texted me the night we lost to Ambridge and told me about the player-only meeting. He spearheaded the idea. They were changing their habits in practice after that meeting. Without championship experience maybe they don't have that meeting."

The championship Bears is referring to is the nine gold medals among players on his 16-man roster who were members of the football or soccer teams.

Since that meeting the Indians have gone 6-2 have witnessed some strong individual performances.

Junior Andrew Koester, a quarterback on the football squad, eclipsed the 1,000-point career scoring plateau with his performance last Friday against Hopewell. Needing 23 points, Koester got 25, but it was the collective team effort that helped him reach that feat that had coach Bears smiling.

"He has done a great job sharing the ball," Bears said. "The kids all wanted to be the one to get the assist [on the milestone basket]."

The Indians are shooting 75 percent from the free-throw line and have picked it up lately. In their past four section wins before Tuesday, in the fourth quarter alone they were converting at a staggering 86 percent (48 of 56).

A big reason for that success is senior Mike Miara. Miara is shooting 85 percent from the line and became the second Indians player in a week to reach the 1,000-point mark. He scored 29 points Tuesday in a 76-43 non-section victory against Southmoreland on Senior Night.

The Indians will have one more shot at pay-back on Friday, when they travel to Ambridge, a game that can have playoff seeding implications.

"It has been talked about in the locker room," Bears said. "You can talk about seeding but wherever they put us, we are going to play our hardest. For us it is more that we were down and out and no one but us believed that we could do it."

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