Oprean's late free throws lift Lancers
Neshannock (46) Vs. California (45)
By Clayton Sauertieg
New Castle News
IMPERIAL — It’s fitting, in a way, that the fate of the Neshannock High boys basketball team was in the hands of Ean Oprean.
Oprean, a senior and the team’s leading scorer, had been there time and again this season when his teammates needed him. On Tuesday night, in the first round of the WPIAL Class 2A playoffs against California, he was there again, sinking two free throws with .3 seconds to go to give his team a 46-45 victory.
After a back-and-forth contest with the ninth-seeded Trojans (19-4), the eighth-seeded Lancers (16-7) trailed by one point with 4.5 seconds remaining in the contest. Moments prior, Danny Welker pulled down a vital offensive rebound to allow coach John Corey to call a timeout and give Neshannock the final shot. Oprean took an inbound pass above the arc, dribbled left and pulled up just above the elbow. After giving one pump fake, he was fouled by California’s John DeFranco. Oprean then stepped up to the free-throw line and hit both shots, sending Neshannock’s fans into a frenzy and its players into the second round.
“I was just thinking it’s a clear gym. No one’s in there, just me shooting,” Oprean said. “I practice free throws a lot, so it was nothing to me. I was just relaxed. I knew if I would’ve missed any of them we would’ve either lost or gone to overtime, but it didn’t bother me. I knew I had to make them and that’s what I did.”
Corey said that he felt the call was clear, noting that Oprean “got clobbered” by the California defender.
California coach Bruno Pappersergi felt otherwise.
“It was one of the worst calls that I’ve ever seen in history,” Pappersergi said. “A game like that, that’s that close, that hard-fought is not determined by the officials. Let the kids determine it. Was it a foul? It might’ve been. It’s close. But our kids fought too hard, they played too well, so did Neshannock. It was a great game. I said it was going to be a great game. For them to lose on a call like that, I can’t get accept it.”
The free throws came on a night when Oprean struggled offensively, scoring just 13 points, well below his average of 23.9.
“I think I’ve used all the adjectives and the accolades I can give you for that young man,” Corey said. “But he just always finds a way to get it done for us. Throughout the season with different lineups and different guys he’s just been so consistent.
“The senior year he’s having is just fabulous and as I’ve said before, he worked so hard to put himself in this situation. When a kid works as hard as he does and has this type of season it shows everybody else that you have to put the time in. He made the decision to be great and he is great,” he added.
Though Oprean was well below his scoring average, the Lancers were boosted by contributions from Chris Maize with 15 points and Dante DeLillo with 11.
“I can’t talk enough about him,” Corey said of Maize. “He’s a very talented kid and at times he doesn’t play with the confidence that we want him to, but we’ve been very aware of Chris’ ability to play this game at a high level and obviously what a game he had tonight in the biggest game of the season.
“Dante didn’t have his best game, but made some big shots when we needed him as well. And Danny Welker had a big game for us, too. He doesn’t always show up on the stat sheets, but he’s always doing the little things,” he continued.
One of those little things was being tasked with guarding California’s leading scorer, Kass Taylor. Taylor, who came into the game averaging 19.9 points per game, was held to just 14 points against the Lancers.
“Obviously he’s their best player and I thought Danny Welker did a really good job on him,” Corey said. “You’re not going to hold a guy like that scoreless, but I believe he was well under his average and Danny did a great job. He’s a really athletic, strong kid and he really makes guys work for it on offense.”
Neshannock also played the contest without the services of starting center Ty Sear. Sear, a 6-foot-5 senior who is a Pitt football recruit, is dealing with a shoulder injury that was evaluated by doctors on Monday, according to Corey.
“We don’t really have a timetable there yet,” Corey said.
The Lancers victory moves them into the quarterfinals, where they will take on top-seeded Greensburg Central Catholic. The Centurions head into the game with a 22-0 record and are outscoring opponents by 18.4 points per game.
“Greensburg is as advertised,” Corey said of the Lancers’ upcoming opponent. “We’ll have our hands full on Friday, but we’ve had a great season and our kids always find a way. I couldn’t be prouder to move on in this tournament with this group of kids.”