West Xtra: Memory of playoff loss fires Central Valley

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Last year's first-round WPIAL playoff loss wasn't easily forgotten by the members of the Central Valley High School boys basketball team.

Soon after winning a Section 2-AAA championship, the Warriors suffered a five-point loss against Kittanning in the first round and quickly saw its season come to an end.

"No doubt, they were hurt after that loss," Central Valley coach Brandon Ambrose said. "We played well [all season], but losing that game surprised and hurt.

"The boys focused on it during the offseason and worked on critical situations and worked to correct the mistakes we made in that game."

Motivated by last season's postseason heartbreaker, a senior-loaded Central Valley team stormed through this year's regular-season schedule with a perfect 12-0 run in Section 2-AAA and entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed with an 18-3 overall record.

"We're always playing hard and continue to try to get better," Ambrose said before his team began the playoffs. "We've had a lot of corrections and improvements, like positioning ourselves and guarding the ball, but everything has come together the last few weeks. Even when we haven't played our best, we've done enough to win."

The Warriors, who finished the regular season as the Post-Gazette's No. 2-ranked team in Class AAA, received a first-round bye in the WPIAL playoffs as a No. 2 seed and faced No. 15-seed West Mifflin on Tuesday night at Moon Area High School.

They defeated the Titans, the fourth-place team from Section 4-AAA, 62-42. West Mifflin (13-7) had dispatched Laurel Highlands, 63-51, last Friday to advance to the second round.

The Warriors (19-3) will play Montour (16-7) in the quarterfinals 8 p.m. Friday at West Allegheny.

"This group has been there before, especially with the grind of the regular season, but most of them have never been through the grind of playoff season," Ambrose said. "Getting knocked out in the first round last year definitely helped everyone learn from that experience.

"Our seniors feel a sense of urgency and realize this is their last chance. They have been playing like that the last few weeks. They have been putting forth their best effort to try to win every game."

With eight seniors, including five returning starters from last season -- Jacob St. George, a 5-foot-11 guard, 5-10 guard Brian Kolich, 5-10 point guard Michael Sims, 6-4 guard/forward Tony Gates and 6-8 center Matt Kline -- Ambrose has been more than impressed by the veteran leadership and overall unselfishness displayed by his senior class this season.

"I know I have a lot of guys who want to win," Ambrose said. "We've talked about individual accolades, but what can you take away from that if you don't win? It's good, but if you haven't succeeded as a team, it doesn't matter.

"These guys are about the team first. They wanted to win a section title and we did that two years in a row. They put in the effort and ability to achieve that goal."

Guido Palumbo, a 5-8 guard, as well as 6-1 forward Anthony Guarascio and 5-7 guard Zaquan Jeter also are seniors and sparingly came off the Warriors' bench this season.

"I have heard some real horror stories about the selfishness witnessed by coaches," Ambrose said. "Those three kids, I can say, are three of the best teammates we have. They go about doing their job in practice and really value being on the team. We're happy to have them."

St. George missed two weeks with a hyper-extended elbow injury but recently returned last week in a non-section game to close the regular season against Class AAAA No. 1-ranked New Castle. Kolich also missed five games with a shoulder injury but was expected to be healthy for the playoffs.

Junior John George, a 5-10 guard, earned a starting role because of those injuries. Chris Anastas and B.J. Powell, a pair of 6-3 junior forwards, as well as 5-7 guard Dante Lucci also have added valuable depth.

Kline, a Seton Hill University recruit, as well as St. George both entered the playoffs averaging about 12 points a game.

"These guys all want to play harder than anybody and they share the ball better than anybody," Ambrose said. "I've never seen a team so unselfish. The only thing that matters is the team.

"If some of these guys played on other teams, they would be their leading scorer. We have a group of guys averaging between 12 and 16 points a game. Some take a backseat because of that, but they're sharing the ball, working together and winning together."

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