For the Aliquippa High School boys basketball team, the playoffs might as well have started last week.
With the Section 2-AA title on the line in a Beaver County clash last Friday against arch-rival and two-time defending WPIAL champion Beaver Falls, the Quips pushed the Tigers into overtime before earning a 59-57 victory.
The win ended Beaver Falls' streak of six consecutive section crowns and gave Aliquippa its first section championship since it won 11 in a row from 1997-2007.
"Winning a section title is huge for this program," said Nick Lackovich, who is in his first season at Aliquippa after serving as Doug Biega's assistant at Beaver Falls for the revious three years. "Our goal from Day One was to win the section and move on to winning a WPIAL title and then hopefully a PIAA title.
"I explained this plan to a young team earlier in the season. Sometimes it's hard for kids to take your word and they need to see if for themselves. To win against a very good Beaver Falls team was huge in helping build this program back to where it was and put Aliquippa back on the map, like it should be."
With the game tied at 51 at the end of regulation, Aliquippa's Charles Humphries, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard/forward, scored the winning basket against visiting Beaver Falls with 29 seconds left in overtime.
Humphries finished the game with 15 points, while 5-9 junior guard Darrien Field paced the Quips with a team-high 16 points.
"We played well and got after the ball," Lackovich said. "It was an intense game that had a playoff atmosphere in front of a great crowd. Both teams traded blows, but we seemed to have more at the end.
"Both teams could have come into the game with 0-20 records and it still would have been a playoff atmosphere. It was a great experience for the kids and it's going to help them mature and be prepared for a dogfight in the playoffs."
Ranked No. 5 in Class AA by the Post-Gazette, Aliquippa enters the postseason with a 16-5 overall record and riding a nine-game winning streak. The Quips went 12-2 in section play after suffering mid-season losses to Riverside and Beaver Falls (16-6, 11-3).
The Quips will open play in the WPIAL tournament next Wednesday with a game against the winner of Saturday's Chartiers-Houston/Charleroi first-round game at a site and time to be determined.
"The kids have grown up since the beginning of the season and began accepting their roles," Lackovich said. "Guys continued to get better and our overall unselfishness has been there all season.
"We've had nine different guys score in double figures during the regular season, so we haven't relied on just one guy. On any given night, different guys are stepping up. They're all pulling together."
Lackovich has rotated seven different players into his starting lineup, including Humphries and Fields as well as 6-2 senior guard Shawnqueze Adamson, 6-5 junior guard/forward Patrick Anderson, 5-8 sophomore guard Jassir Jordan, 6-2 sophomore Kaezon Pugh and 5-8 senior guard Jyier Turner.
Marquese Moore, a 5-8 senior guard, as well as 6-2 freshman forward Robert Crute also have added depth off the bench.
Jordan has been leading the Quips in scoring with an average of 16.7 points a game, while both Field and Humphries have been steady by averaging 14 and 13 points, respectively.
"It's been great that we haven't had to depend on one guy to score 25 or 30 points every night," Lackovich said. "There might be nights Jordan only scores four points, but that's when other guys pick him up.
"Having that type of depth has been a nice situation to have."
Lackovich also believes depth should help the Quips move along in the playoffs.
"I don't think we've played our best basketball yet, and that's encouraging," Lackovich said. "We're writing a new book for this program this season and we're not finished with it.
"We just completed chapter one and we're turning the page to move on toward the next chapter. Hopefully, we'll be able to keep going with a quality run in the playoffs."