Oprean helps Neshannock into WPIAL playoffs
Laurel (56) Vs. Neshannock (59)
By Clayton Sauertieg
New Castle News
There are certain elements of high school sports that make them special.
There's the sense of the community, the cross-town rivalries, and the opportunity for a local kid to make himself into a hero.
Neshannock High's Ean Oprean was able to do the latter on Friday night.
Oprean scored a career-high 43 points to carry the Lancers to a 59-56 WPIAL Section 3-2A road victory over rival Laurel in a game that determined which team snared the final playoff berth and which squad was eliminated from the playoff race.
"Flat out, the dude is a warrior," Neshannock coach John Corey said of Oprean after the game. "I told my team today 'Ean wasn't going to get 34 (points) again, they're going to make him fight tooth and nail' and he sure made me look stupid."
The two teams battled back-and-forth in front of a packed crowd on senior night at Laurel High.
The Spartans (7-7 section, 14-8 overall) got out of the gate quickly, jumping out to a 20-12 lead after the first quarter behind eight points from the program's all-time leading scorer, senior Mason Mraz.
However, the Lancers (8-6, 14-7) never let their opponents get away. Oprean scored 15 of his 43 in the second frame, pulling Neshannock to within two points at 29-27 heading into the half.
"Before this game started I said that in order to win we needed to be mentally tough," Corey said. "We talked about the runs. I said 'they're going to go on a run, we're going to go on a run and how we handle our success and their success will be important.' Our guys did a great job of staying in the moment."
The Spartans again looked to take control at the beginning of the second half, forging a 39-29 lead with five minutes remaining in the third quarter after Colton Esposito's three-point-play.
As was the case all night, however, Oprean had an answer. The 6-foot guard drilled a 3-pointer to quiet the home crowd and spark a 10-4 Lancers run to close the quarter strong and into the fourth down just 43-39.
Oprean drilled yet another 3-pointer to open the frame and pull Neshannock within one. But the Spartans refused to relent. Mraz grabbed an offensive rebound, one of his 16 total rebounds, and put it in to stretch the lead to 46-42.
The Lancers had pulled back to within one when Dante DeLillo knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing, his only bucket of the night, to give Neshannock its first lead at 48-46 with 4:05 left.
"Dante had three or four blocked shots early on, but I go back to the mental toughness. He stays mentally tough enough to drain that shot for us at a very crucial part of the game," Corey said of the shot.
Oprean then went back to work, scoring the next seven points of the game for the Lancers as they held the Spartans within reach.
Mraz wasn't done with his scoring, however, and a 3-pointer followed by a quick layup closed the Neshannock lead to one at 55-54.
After Jared Staph split a pair of free throws for Neshannock with 34 seconds remaining, Laurel's Zack Sickafuse was fouled and knocked down a pair of free throws to tie the game at 56.
With just under 10 seconds, Oprean drove left and was able to draw a foul, sending him to the stripe with 9.2 seconds to go. As was the case all night, he calmly stepped up and drained both, giving his team a 58-56 lead.
Seconds later, Mraz was called for a charge as Neshannock's Jared Staph stepped in and took the contact. The foul was the fifth for Mraz, ending his night with 27 points and giving the ball back to the Lancers with 3.3 remaining. Oprean then knocked down one of two free throws and an Esposito last-second 3-pointer at the buzzer fell short, sending the Neshannock fans into a frenzy and the team into the playoffs.
"What an unbelievable 32 minutes of basketball," Corey said of the contest. "I thought we might be playing four more minutes, but it was just a great game and I'm so proud of my guys."
Said Oprean of his effort, "Yeah, it was the biggest game of my career so I had to come out and play the absolute best that I can and I was able to do that. The expectations were high, but I didn't let it get to me. I was very calm, very relaxed and I didn't let the atmosphere get to me. I love the game and it's just second nature to me."
The Lancers now move on into the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season, including all nine in Corey's tenure.
The Spartans will look toward next season, where they will be without with five seniors, Mraz, Esposito, Sickafuse, Jordan Dantico and Ben Wilson who will each move on after graduation.
"I'm proud of them, they left everything out on that floor," Laurel coach Ken Locke said of his team. "There's no words you can come up with, you just tell them you're proud of them."
"It was everything I could've asked for, I used to dream about stuff like that," Oprean said. "Playing in front of a big crowd, on the road, a huge rivalry. It was awesome, greatest night of my life."