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Tough section matures Steel Valley girls basketball team

Written by Joe Koch on .

Steel Valley coach Kelly Sabo was ecstatic with her team's performance in a 76-61 victory over Riverside in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA tournament last Tuesday night at North Hills High School.

"These girls came out here and played so hard," she said of her team that featured  four players led by Ashley McCallister's 24-point effort. C.C. Dixon added 23, while Emily Olson and Taylor Szczepanowski added 14 and 10 points, respectively.

"They played as a team, and they played together," Sabo added. "When one goes down, the other ones step up for each other. They've been doing that all year long."  That's exactly what they did (Tuesday night)."

Sabo likely was just as pleased with her team's 79-52 victory over New Brighton, another Section 2-AA team, in last Friday night's quarterfinals. Four players -- Olson (18), McCallister (15), Dixon (14) and Angela Weir (11) -- reached double figures for Steel Valley.

"So many girls (can come in) and can take over and control a game," Sabo said. "These girls don't care about individual things. They care about the team and winning, and they know the only way to win is if you play as a team."

The victory over New Brighton vaulted the Ironmen into Tuesday's Class AA semifinals against Section 5 rival and No. 2 seed Bishop Canevin. The Crusaders won both regular-season meetings (58-38 and 65-49).

Game time is 6 p.m. on Tuesday night at West Allegheny High School.

The winner of that game meets the winner of the other Class AA semifinal for the WPIAL Class AA championship on Friday night at the A.J. Palumbo Center. Seton-LaSalle Rebels (23-0), the tournament's top seed, meets Keystone Oaks (19-6), also at 6 p.m. Tuesday at North Hills High School.

Two big factors in the victory over Riverside was the 13-3 run the Ironmen had in the opening minutes of the third quarter that turned a 32-28 halftime lead into a comfortable 45-31 advantage with 6:27 remaining in the third quarter.

One big reason for that run was the seven turnovers Steel Valley forced in the third quarter and the 23 they forced in the game.
To Sabo, the quick turnaround was no illusion.

"I always tell the girls (to try to force) deflections," she said "Try to get the steals off the dribbles, get our hands active and pick up the ball and get deflections. Get the steals off the passes. They're really starting to understand the game of basketball."

And when they weren't deflecting passes and forcing turnovers, Steel Valley was putting its aggressive, fast break offense into high gear.

"That was our goal coming in: get the ball and go," she said. "We wanted to run on this team and we wanted to tire them out. I told the girls at halftime, I wanted (Riverside) sucking wind and by the end of the third quarter, I wanted them so tired I didn't want them to come out for the fourth quarter. You could see in the fourth quarter our girls were getting their legs even more. We saw (Riverside) slow down and make it a slow-up game. When they tried to make it a slow-up game, that's when we applied more pressure and get the game up and down the court."

Sabo said she's grateful for the high standard expected from teams from Section 5-AA. All four semifinalists are from the eight-team section.
"A lot of people ask me if I wish we were in another section," Sabo said. "We have some of our toughest games in section, and I really believe our section is what's preparing these girls for the playoff run."

The winner of that game meets the winner of the other semifinal between top seed and undefeated Seton-LaSalle and Keystone Oaks, which tied Steel Valley for third place in the section. Both teams were 7-5 in the section.

A semifinal berth is new territory for Steel Valley. Just ask McCallister.

"We haven't been in the second round of the playoffs since 2008, and we're excited right now," she said.