High School Basketball
Imani Christian Makes Light Work of Clarion in First Round of PIAA Tournament
WEXFORD — On the heels of WPIAL Class 1A title, the Imani Christian Academy Saints returned to the PIAA state playoffs against Clarion Friday night.
As the Saints look to make another deep run in the state bracket, they made a pitstop to play Clarion at North Allegheny High School and it was a quick one at that, steamrolling the Bobcats 78-43.
After rattling off 13 wins in 14 games to close out the WPIAL season, Imani needed to switch gears for the bigger picture and the ultimate goal, a state title.
“It’s a bigger stage,” Saints’ head coach Omar Foster said. “Teams are going to be a little better and play harder.”
The Saints (18-6) handled Clarion (17-10) effortlessly as they relied on offense that was instant and explosive as the 5th seed from district 9 had no chance.
Leading the offense was Imani’s guard play as Avery Wesley, Dame Givner and RJ Sledge ignited the scoring for the Saints. Not only did they cash in all night long, they also shared the wealth around as the Saints finished with 29 assists.
“The guards played really strong and shot the ball really well,” Foster said. “We had 29 assists as a team and that’s solid.”
An offensive onslaught was immediate from the tip-off. Imani turned to its top shooters, which included Sledge who made his presence known early. In the blink of an eye, the 5-foot-11 sophomore drained three triples to open the scoring for the Saints.
“He’s been a great point guard,” Foster said. “All my guards got after it today.”
Sledge registered 10 points in the first quarter on the way to 13 in the winning effort.
While Sledge had the scoring touch early in the game, the Saints’ backcourt continued to stay hot with Wesley and Givner providing consistent offense. The guard duo produced 16 points apiece. Givner showed off his crafty mid-range game, while Wesley knocked down three shots from behind the arc in the first half.
“It helped us get the lead early in the first half and then we took off from there,” Wesley said on the 3-point shooting.
End of Q1:
Dame Givner with a 3-pointer to close out a solid first quarter for Imani Christian Academy.
Givner with 10 points, along with RJ Sledge’s 10. Gabe Simko has 6 for Clarion. pic.twitter.com/agS9jW0mar
— Nathan Breisinger (@NateBreisinger) March 11, 2023
As the threes rained for the Saints, another big factor in the first round win was the size mismatch. With a roster smaller than 6-foot-2, the Bobcats had to deal with the vastly bigger frontcourt of the Saints, which includes 6-foot-9 junior Virgil Hall and 6-foot-11 highly-recruited Alier Maluk.
Both Hall and Maluk were difference makers on the glass and in the offensive output. The two bigs were also key in breaking down the Bobcats’ game plan.
“We noticed they ran some zone plays and halfcourt offenses, and we just had to stop that,” Wesley said. “We had to keep them from getting as many second chance points as possible.”
Hall and Maluk created some open lanes for the Saints, which allowed them to finish at the hoop as well. Hall reached double digits as he finished with 14 points. Maluk added eight.
With the game was out of reach, Clarion tried to pour in as many points as possible. The Bobcats’ leading scorer Devon Lauer scored 17 in the losing effort as he buried three from beyond the arc. Outside of Lauer, Gabe Smiko was the other bright spot for the Bobcats as he notched 10 points, but was much more visible besides his point total as the 6-foot-2 forward competed closely with the Saints’ bigs.
Walking away with a 35-point victory, the Saints did have some weary areas of their game that they need to finetune before moving on in the bracket.
“I wasn’t real happy with the way we played defense,” Foster said. “We’re going to work on that for the next two days.”
The Saints will head to the second round to face Union-Rimersburg on Tuesday.