Triple threat: Archbishop Wood downs South Fayette in PIAA-5A final for third straight state title

HERSHEY >> Waiting to receive their state champion medals, Ava Renninger and Deja Evans extended arms and shook hands.

Archbishop Wood’s senior forward and junior point guard have forged a tight bond over the last two years in the time they’ve been with the program, the tallest player on the team and the shortest varsity regular on equal footing with each other. It’s the type of relationship both can benefit from too, as evidenced from their play on the floor Saturday night in Hershey’s Giant Center with Renninger and Evans leading the way to yet another Wood state title.

Wood’s offense was outstanding, its defense effective and all of it added up to a 61-54 win over South Fayette in the PIAA 5A championship, the Vikings’ third straight state title after back-to-back 4A ‘chips the last two years.

“Both of us coming in at the same time helped and we both try to stay level-headed and always keep our team in it,” Renninger, who led all scorers with 21 points, said. “We feed off each other to get buckets and we’re each other’s hype man. We know how good each other are and we want to feed off each other.”

Archbishop Wood’s (from left) Allie Fleming, Emily Knouse (20), Campbell McCloskey (3), Kara Meredith (24) and Deja Evan (11) celebrate with the PIAA championship trophy and a giant chocolate bar after their victory over South Fayette in the PIAA-5A final on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

A year ago, Evans set a state title game record with 20 rebounds. She didn’t quite get there on Saturday but the 6-foot-2 forward did register her ninth double-double in 10 state games with Wood since coming over before her junior year, scoring 17 points with 12 rebounds and looking to take the game at South Fayette’s 6-foot-3 Ava Leroux.

Most teams don’t have a player like Evans, a skilled and athletic big but it might be even rarer to find a guard like Renninger who knows how to get them the ball. So that’s why the Albany-bound Evans has appreciated the relationship she and Renninger have built these past two seasons.

“Ava is a phenomenal passer and point guard who can get to the basket whenever she wants to,” Evans said. “We built that chemistry in practice but we have a connection off the court too. We’re really good friends.”

Wood never trailed in the game and save for a brief moment where it was tied 5-5, led almost wire to wire. The Vikings won the opening tip and Kara Meredith buried a three to kick off an unbelievable offensive barrage that saw the defending state champs drop 22 in the first eight minutes of play.

Having Evans make a pair of threes in the first quarter showed the Vikings it was a good night to shoot the ball, the squad hitting 4-of-6 from deep in the first quarter while Renninger lived in the midrange and paint for eight points. By halftime, Wood was 15-of-21 from the floor and they finished a ridiculous 22-of-35 for a 62.9 percent clip in an area that’s usually really hard to make shots in.

“We brought offense tonight, usually we’re bringing defense but tonight we brought offense,” Wood coach Mike McDonald said. “They’re an outstanding team with a lot of weapons and we needed every basket, we needed as many foul shots as we could make at the end. I thought they were an outstanding team before we came here and felt the same thing after the game. I was really pleased with how we played.

“I felt we won a championship over a great team, nobody lost it.”

Archbishop Wood’s Ava Renninger (4) goes up for a shot against South Fayette during the PIAA-5A championship game on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

McDonald won his fifth title as the Vikings coach, following the last two years and the repeat in 2016 and 2017 teams while Wood took home its eighth overall including three straight from 2010-12.

There were two matchups that stood out going into the game. The first was the battle of bigs with the 6-foot-2 Albany recruit Evans going up against South Fayette’s Elon-bound 6-foot-3 Leroux. The other was how South Fayette standout senior point guard Maddie Webber, a Villanova recruit, would fare on her visit to Delaney Island.

There was no question Wood defensive dynamo Delaney Finnegan would guard the 5-foot-11 Webber. Despite yielding an early step-back three, Finnegan was able to keep the future Wildcat below double-digits until Webber buried a three in the closing seconds to close the final margin of victory.

“She could do everything,” Finnegan said. “It was going to be tough for me to guard, there was no time I could stay off her or take a break. I knew I had to chase over every screen and always be glued to her.

“But I’m used to that.”

Archbishop Wood’s Deja Evans (11) shoots a 3-pointer against South Fayette during the PIAA-5A championship game on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

Wood added an extra wrinkle on defense, sending a double team at Webber if she had the ball out on the wing, Finnegan saying the idea was to make her give up the ball quickly so she could focus on denying the South Fayette guard from getting it back.

“It wasn’t a hesitation, we knew Delaney Finnegan was going to be on her and as much as we could keep the ball our of her hands, do it,” McDonald said. “Once she did get it, we tried to run double teams at her and make someone else beats. They scored 54 points, they capitalized on a lot of areas but it wasn’t (Webber) who dominated us and that’s what we wanted, we didn’t want her to go off for 25 or 30 points.”

Renninger and Evans were both 5-of-5 from the floor in the first half with Renninger a little more stealthy in the way she was getting her points compared to Evans going to work on another player with size to match her. It had been a while since the senior got to match up with a fellow post and Evans was complimentary of Leroux, who popped 10 points and eight rebounds, but felt like she had an advantage.

Archbishop Wood’s Delaney Finnegan (20) puts her hands up as she defends South Fayette’s Maddie Webber (34) during the PIAA-5A championship game on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

Evans has worked hard with her older brother Chris to round out her game and that’s where she went to work on Saturday.

“Going downhill, I knew my rip was fast enough to get past her and I used that to my advantage,” Evans said. “I love playing against competition, especially that girl tonight.

“Hitting those two threes, my teammates put a lot of confidence in me.”

Renninger noticed it too. Wood extended its lead to 37-24 at the half, Meredith hitting another three to open the stanza then getting every other point a the foul line or in the paint.

Archbishop Wood’s Emily Knouse (30) looks to drive past South Fayette’s Rachel Black (25) during the PIAA-5A championship game on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

In the third quarter, Renninger and Evans only had one bucket each but they were terrific passing the ball. Evans passed out of the post to find Meredith for three while Renninger was able to get in deep and kick to Emily Knouse for a trey and had a gorgeous drive and thread-the-needle look to Evans for an and-one layup.

The 5-foot-6 guard isn’t big but there’s a reason she gets up at 6 a.m. and runs through grueling workouts before school. She’s strong and posied, a 9-of-11 shooting effort all within 15 feet or closer to the hoop going with five rebounds and three assists on Saturday.

“Deja down low took away their big and I knew their smaller guard I’d be able to handle because of my strength so I knew to attack,” Renninger said. “It would either bring the big or she’d stay with Deja, so it would get me or Deja open and I planned to attack down low and finish.”

Wood had seven seniors this year, a large class by the program’s standards. It was a special moment postgame when McDonald put the state champion medal around Allie Fleming’s neck, the senior co-captain missing much of the year with a knee injury, and her teammates mobbing her right after.

Finnegan noted her class never lost a state playoff game — the Class of 2023 was 17-0 in PIAA contests counting the cancelled 2019-20 tournament. Meredith, a co-captain as well, ended her last game with 13 points before heading to Holy Family and mentioned the pride she had in the collective group.

“Tonight we came out energetic right away, which we’ve been working on all season,” Meredith said. “We played hard all game and never fully let up, even when they started to come back in the last quarter.

“I’m just so happy and proud to leave Wood girls basketball with a state title and on such a high with my best friends.”

Archbishop Wood’s Kara Meredith (24) leads for joy as the Vikings win the PIAA-5A championship game over South Fayette 61-54 on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

This team didn’t have a PCL MVP or all-state player of the year type of performer but it did have an abundance of depth and quality. Finnegan said this was an especially close team and one that had a lot of fun throughout the year while McDonald said it was one of the easiest teams to coach he’s had because it was all about basketball.

Every player had a role. If it was finding the best kid on the other team and making their night miserable, than that’s what Finnegan was going to do.

“What keeps me going is knowing I have a job to do,” Finnegan said. “I know that’s my role and what I have to do to close out the game. Going into the game, I have an assignment and that’s all it is.”

Archbishop Wood girls basketball players pose for a photo with the PIAA championshiop trophy and a giant chocolate bar after winning the Class 5A title with a 61-54 victory over South Fayette on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

The only thing Renninger was disappointed about on Saturday was that her time playing with Evans was over. Renninger, along with Knouse, will be the leaders for next year’s team as Wood tries to do something it’s never done and win a fourth straight state title.

Winning never gets old and Archbishop Wood’s seniors made sure they got to remember that feeling one last time.

“I wanted to end here,” Evans said. “This was our focal point the whole season getting to the state championship. My teammates helped me a lot, they boosted my confidence a lot throughout the season and kept feeding me the ball.”

Archbishop Wood 61, South Fayette 54
Archbishop Wood 22 15 11 13 — 61
South Fayette 12 12 11 19 — 54
Archbishop Wood: Ava Renninger 9 3-4 21, Deja  Evans 6 3-5 17, Kara Meredith 4 2-2 13, Emily Knouse 2 2-2 8, Lauren Tretter 1 0-0 2. Totals: 22 10-18 61.
South Fayette: Ava Leroux 4 1-3 10, Rachel Black 2 0-1 4, Erica Hall 7 2-2 17, Maddie Webber 4 1-3 11, Ryan Oldaker 3 2-2 9 Julianna Rossi 0 1-2 1, Juliette Leroux 1 0-0 2. Totals: 21 7-13 54.
3-pointers: AW – Meredith 3, Knouse 2, Evans 2; SF – Webber 2, Leroux, Hall, Oldaker.

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