MCKEES ROCKS – Monessen senior Clintell Gillaspie sat on a padded steel chair with a look of frustration draped over his face. Gillaspie was forced to watch as his teammates traded basket after basket with Vincentian Academy.
After being called for his fourth personal foul early in the third quarter, Gillaspie was relegated to the bench. As the fourth quarter was set to begin, Gillaspie told Monessen head coach Joe Salvino to keep him on the sidelines for a few more minutes. He feared fouling out before accomplishing his goal of reaching a WPIAL title game.
With just over five minutes to play and the Greyhounds leading Vincentian by eight points, the 6-1 guard reentered the game and quickly made up for his time out o the game. Gillaspie scored 12 points in the final five minutes to propel Monessen to an astounding 110-99 upset win over Vincentian. Gillaspie scored a game-high 34 points to push Monessen into the Class A Championship game at the AJ Palumbo Center on Friday night where the Greyhounds will face top-seeded Lincoln Park.
“I didn’t like sitting and watching,” Gillaspie said. “I’ve been waiting for this game and this opportunity. This is my first championship and losing was not on my mind. (Coach Salvino) believes in me. Before I went in, he told me do what you know you can do.”
The Greyhounds (20-6) led by as many as 11 points in the second half when Vincentian stormed back. The Royals went on a 7-0 run early in the fourth quarter when Salvino decided it was time to put his star guard into the game. Gillaspie showed incredible moves for his size; driving into the lane, faking a lay-up to his right and going left.
The Greyhounds scored a stunning 64 points – 32 in each – second and fourth quarters. It was a performance fit for the WPIAL semifinals.
Entering the game, Vincentian head coach George Yokitis thought that getting the Greyhounds into foul trouble early was crucial for the Royals to win.
Gillaspie, Tyler Yuille and Justice Rawlins did just that, with all three picking up four fouls. And the Royals’, who average 90.9 points per game, were starting to hit shots.
It was an unknown freshman who proved Yokitis’s hypothesis wrong.
Justice Rice, a 6-1 reserve guard, entered midway through the first quarter and promptly took an elbow to the face causing his nose to bleed. With pieces of tissue stuffed up both nostrils, the freshman was a catalyst for the Greyhounds’ fast-paced offense.
Monessen held a one-point lead with under four minutes remaining before halftime when Rice hit two three-point shots, added a three-point play when he was fouled on a layup and scored again to lead the Greyhounds into halftime with a seven-point lead. He added 12 more points in the second half to finish with a career-high 23 points.
“It was so annoying,” Rice said of his bloody nose. “(Nose bleeds) run in the family – my dad always gets them. I couldn’t’ worry about it though. I’ve always been told that big time players make big time plays in big time games. I knew I had to step up with our guys in foul trouble and it happened.”
Vincentian (22-3) regained the lead early in the third quarter with senior Jim Kenna’s layup. Rice, along with fellow freshman Jaden Altomore, gave Monessen a boost when it seemed the Royals had regained momentum. The duo was relentless, driving to the lane to create opportunities and knocking down contested jump shots. Altomore added 18 points for the Greyhounds.
“They were much better shooters than we anticipated,” Yokitis said. “We are a shooting team and they beat us at our own game. We felt comfortable when their best were in foul trouble, but low and behold, (Rice and Altomore) played extremely well.”
In a game where many thought Vincentian’s fast-paced offense and perimeter shooting would be too much to handle, it was Monessen that bested the Royals’ attempt at a second-straight WPIAL title. As Gillaspie sat on the bench, two of his fellow seniors kept the game close. Justice Rawlins scored eight points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Javon Brown scored 16 points and dished out 12 assists.
When Salvino entered the Greyhounds’ excitement-filled locker room, he could not begin to stress the pride he felt in a team that has yet to lose to a Class A opponent, doing so with its top talents dedicating their offseason to football instead of the hardwood.
“I’m so proud of these kids,” Salvino said. “It was such a team effort with Clintell, our other seniors and our younger guys stepping up. When I stepped into that locker room, I said one thing: that’s the way Monessen plays.”