South Xtra: West Mifflin girls a tournament surprise

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Taylor Thomas didn't think she would ever play basketball again.

Two years ago, when she was 15 years old and while attending a friend's birthday party in Duquesne, Thomas was a victim of a shooting that also led to the death of an 18-year-old McKeesport man.

She was shot 10 times.

Thomas, however, was able to return to the hardwood last season as a junior for the West Mifflin girls basketball season.

"I hated the physical therapy," said Thomas, who lives in Duquesne. "But it really helped me both mentally and physically. I was very glad to be able to play basketball again because I really I thought I wouldn't be able to do it."

Now, Thomas, a 6-foot senior, along with fellow senior Ciara Patterson, both have helped advance West Mifflin into Wednesday night's WPIAL Class AAA semifinals against Blackhawk.

"We've been playing well," Thomas said. "We're playing up-tempo and really sticking together as a team. We need to keep focusing on playing as a team and not worry about playing as individuals."

Regardless of the outcome against Blackhawk, West Mifflin (18-5) still secured a state playoff berth by defeating Ringgold in the quarterfinals. The PIAA playoffs tip off March 8.

"We're playing our best team ball right now," said Patterson, a 5-7 guard who lives in West Mifflin. "Teamwork and playing together got us where we are, but I believe we haven't reached our real potential.

"We need to keep pushing the ball up and down the court and keep playing together as a team."

Entering the quarterfinals, Thomas paced the No. 12-seeded Titans by averaging 15.9 points a game while Patterson followed with an average of 15 points. Both girls also surpassed the 1,000-career point plateau earlier this season.

"We rely on [Taylor] to score," said Scott Stephenson, West Mifflin's athletic director and in his first season as the girls head coach. "She's also our leading rebounder, but scoring is her best attribute. She's tough in the paint and is pretty powerful."

During the preliminary round of the Class AAA bracket against Freeport, Taylor scored 23 points and added 12 rebounds. She also had 11 points and 12 rebounds against Ringgold in the quarterfinals.

"She makes for a bad match-up because she's so quick and has the feet of a guard," Stephenson said. "She has rebounded very well the past few games. When she's inside, she's strong and powerful."

Patterson scored 13 points and dished out 11 assists against Freeport before scoring a game-high 25 points and had 14 assists against Indiana in the first round.

"Ciara is so unselfish," Stephenson said. "Some of her better games she's only scored five or six points, but she is very capable of scoring 30 points a night. Her scoring only drops when she's distributing the ball."

Patterson also scored a team-best 13 points against Ringgold.

"Ciara pretty much is our floor leader," Stephenson said. "She was our point guard in the past, but we've moved her to the shooting guard and she shoots well from the outside. Her ballhandling has been great, and there aren't too many people who can take the ball off her.

"She's very strong with the ball and makes other people on our team better. She distributes the ball so well and has made some ridiculous passes."

During the playoffs, Stephenson has been using Thomas as the first player off the bench. Patterson as well as 5-6 senior guard Paige Flore, 5-6 junior guard Alyssa Cairns, 5-11 senior center Deilona DeVaughn and 5-7 junior guard Jiahna Flood-Francis make up the Titans' starting five.

"I'm definitely pleased with how we've been playing," Stephenson said. "We've been in every game; even the ones we've lost. I think we've benefited from playing in the best section in Triple-A. That has helped us a lot in the playoffs."

West Mifflin went 8-4 in Section 4-AAA and finished third behind section champion Elizabeth Forward and Belle Vernon Area. The Titans entered the semifinals riding a seven-game winning streak since losing three consecutive games in late January.

"We could have moved forward or fell apart after losing those game, but we were able to refocus," Stephenson said. "I like the position we're in and like our chances."

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