The South Fayette boys basketball team’s late start to the season was unavoidable. The Lions didn’t have most of their roster for preseason workouts.
But there was a good reason.
With the school’s football team winning the Class AA state title and the soccer program reaching the WPIAL championship match, head coach Rich Bonnaure was forced to piece together a young group to compete before the Lions got to full strength.
It’s not the first time this happened. In 2010, South Fayette’s football team reached the state championship game, giving basketball a late start. The Lions used their size and good guard play to advance to the WPIAL Class AAA title game and the PIAA semifinals, where they lost both times to Montour.
The soccer players, including starting point guard Nick McKee, joined the team in the weeks prior to the season. But 11 football players were unable to take the basketball court until a Dec. 20 game against Section 5-AAA rival Keystone Oaks, two weeks after the first playing date.
This season has been filled with ups and downs as South Fayette (12-9) battled injuries, postponements and reduced practice time. The Lions’ nine losses were unexpected, but the games did not lack competitiveness.
Senior Justin Watson, who broke the WPIAL’s single-season record for receiving yards in football, felt the challenges of transitioning to basketball early on.
“I felt like a football player playing basketball,” Watson said. “Anything from catching the ball to dribbling felt foreign to me.”
South Fayette’s margin of defeat was 7.8 points, including two losses to top-ranked Chartiers Valley. In both of those games, the Lions were winning in the fourth quarter before faltering. The same situation happened against Montour, another Section 5-AAA opponent that defeated Chartiers Valley in last year’s WPIAL title game.
“My coaches and I have been doing this for a long time, and this is the weirdest season we’ve ever seen. For different reasons with the weather, football, soccer and everything else,” Bonnaure said.
The season continued on its inconsistent path last week when South Fayette lost to Wash High with leading-scorer Watson out of the lineup, and McKee did not play in a non-section loss to Butler. The Lions lost five of their last six games but will look to break the dry spell tonight when they play Greensburg Salem (10-2) in a Class AAA preliminary round at Peters Township. Tipoff is 8 p.m.
“The thing about these kids that reminds me of some of our old teams is that basketball might not be their favorite sport, but they play so hard,” Bonnaure said. “They are in every game no matter who they play. It’s been fun for me even with it as crazy as it’s been. I always know that when they take the court, they’re going to play their hardest.”
The favorite to win in Class AAA is Chartiers Valley, a team South Fayette is familiar. But the field is wide open after that.
One advantage the Lions have is a familiarity with success, stemming from the football and soccer teams’ playoff runs earlier this year. Front and center for South Fayette is Watson. The 6-2 small forward is tasked with guarding the opposing team’s top offensive threat and brings strong perimeter shooting to Bonnaure’s offense.
“He takes the opponent’s best player, whether it’s a guy big, small or in between. He can handle that,” Bonnaure said. “I’ve been here a long time and I don’t know if I’ve had a better competitor.”
This time, Watson will likely be guarding Greensburg Salem’s leading scorer, 5-9 senior guard Simeon Stevens. With another potential title at stake, Watson is ready for the challenge of postseason basketball.
“I think we have a pretty good shot of making a run here,” Watson said. “We’ve played in a lot of close games so we’ve been tested. It would be awesome to win two WPIAL titles in my senior year.”
That feat is not out of the realm of possibility for Watson and the Lions.